Perseverance Takes Its First Drive on Mars

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NASA’s Perseverance rover arrived on Mars last month, the culmination of years of design and development at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). NASA began downloading images from the robot almost immediately after the landing, but the team completed a full system check before taking the machine for a spin. Perseverance finally took its first drive on Mars late last week, covering a total of 21.3 feet (6.5 meters). 

Perseverance is about the size of a sub-compact car, weighing more than 2,000 pounds on Earth. Even on Mars, that’s a big robot. Like Curiosity, this rover used a rocket-powered sky crane to execute a soft landing on Mars. NASA wanted to make sure Perseverance was in full working order before driving it anywhere. It also needed a software update, which NASA completed in late February. 

With the housekeeping done, NASA pumped the gas on March 4th. It took about 33 minutes for Perseverance to complete the maneuvers — accuracy is much more important than speed at a distance of 142 million miles (about 230 million kilometers). First, the rover drove forward 13 feet. Then, it turned in place 150 degrees before backing up another eight feet. This dance got Perseverance away from the landing zone, allowing the team to use its Navigation and Hazard Avoidance Cameras to take a peek at the spot where it was dropped off by the descent stage. This could help engineers better understand the specifics of retrorocket landings on Mars. 

An orbital view of the landing zone from the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO).

NASA has already deployed the rover’s robotic arm and run tests on several of its most important instruments like the Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Experiment (RIMFAX) and Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE). The team has several more tests to complete before the rover’s science mission begins in earnest. There are more instruments to calibrate, and there are still protective covers to remove from the sample caching system and Ingenuity helicopter. 

This first drive is only the beginning — Curiosity set a record for covering more distance than any other rover, and Perseverance has redesigned wheels to keep it rolling even longer. There’s a lot to see in Jezero Crater, too. The crater was a lake fed by a river billions of years ago, and the delta is still visible. Scientists believe this region is ideal for detecting signs of ancient life, and Perseverance has the tools to do that.

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