While the agency has completed other missions to Mars, the $2.7 billion robotic explorer, named Perseverance, carries scientific tools that will bring advanced capabilities to the search for life beyond Earth. The rover, about the size of a car, can use its sophisticated cameras, lasers that can analyze the chemical makeup of Martian rocks and ground-penetrating radar to identify the chemical signatures of fossilized microbial life that may have thrived on Mars when it was a planet full of flowing water.
“Now the fun really starts,” Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division, said during a news conference after the landing.
NASA’s earlier missions showed that in the distant past some places were warm, wet and habitable. Now it is time to learn whether there were ever any microscopic inhabitants there.
“It‘s an enormous undertaking that’s in front of us, and it has enormous scientific potential to really be transformative,” Kenneth Williford, a deputy project scientist on the mission said during a news conference on Wednesday. “The question is, ‘Was Mars ever a living planet?’
Mars has been the focus of more and more interest from explorers on Earth. The United Arab Emirates and China both began orbiting the planet last month, joining an armada of European and American spacecraft already studying it from space. And private entrepreneurs are looking toward the neighboring world, with some such as Elon Musk imagining that one day perhaps humans could live there.
The rover will set in motion a NASA plan that is to be carried out over the next decade, and it could bring samples from Mars back to Earth, where scientists will have even more capabilities to find something signaling that our planet is not the only place where life has ever been found.
The mission will also try to make a small experimental helicopter, Ingenuity, take flight in the thin Martian atmosphere — something never accomplished before. Successful tests of this Marscopter could point the way toward new methods for searching the surface of Mars and other worlds from their skies.
A successful test of the helicopter would be “a true extraterrestrial Wright Brothers moment,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science.
NASA has landed a series of rovers on Mars since the 1990s. Each has revolutionized human understanding of Mars.
The Spirit and Opportunity rovers, which landed in 2004, followed unmistakable signs of water that flowed several billion years ago. The Curiosity rover, which arrived in 2012, quickly discovered that its location, the 96-mile-wide Gale Crater, was once a freshwater lake, an environment that was clearly habitable even though it was not equipped to answer whether microbes once inhabited the lake.
Perseverance, by contrast, has the tools that can search for complex carbon-based molecules that could be the remnants of past microbes.
“We’re looking for lifelike shapes, and lifelike compositions,” Dr. Williford said. “Chemical compositions — so the elements, the minerals, the molecules, the organic molecules that we know are associated with life — we’re looking for all those things occurring together.”