The NASA Perseverance rover has taken its first drive on Mars, traveling about 21 feet and doing a little spin across Jezero Crater. And that first 33-minute test drive on Thursday went “incredibly well,” according to Anais Zarifian, Perseverance’s mobility test bed engineer.
Perseverance sent back images of its wheel tracks across the red Martian surface Friday.
This is the first of many checkouts and milestones for the rover after its successful landing on February 18. Once the mission truly begins exploring Mars, it will go on drives averaging about 656 feet or more.
“When it comes to wheeled vehicles on other planets, there are few first-time events that measure up in significance to that of the first drive,” Zarifian said. “This was our first chance to ‘kick the tires’ and take Perseverance out for a spin. The rover’s six-wheel drive responded superbly. We are now confident our drive system is good to go, capable of taking us wherever the science leads us over the next two years.”
During the first drive, the rover drove forward 13 feet, performed a 150-degree turn to the left and reversed 8 feet. The rover was able to turn its cameras to the site where it landed.
Other images sent back from the rover revealed more about the landing site, which the agency has designated Octavia E. Butler Landing in honor of the late science fiction author from Pasadena, California. The rover’s mission is managed from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is based in Pasadena.
“Butler’s protagonists embody determination and inventiveness, making her a perfect fit for the Perseverance rover mission and its theme of overcoming challenges,” said Katie Stack Morgan, deputy project scientist for the rover. “Butler inspired and influenced the planetary science community and many beyond, including those typically under-represented in STEM fields.”
Butler was the first African American woman to win both the Hugo Award and Nebula Award. She was also the first science fiction writer honored with a MacArthur Fellowship.
“I can think of no better person to mark this historic landing site than Octavia E. Butler, who not only grew up next door to JPL in Pasadena, but she also inspired millions with her visions of a science-based future,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, in a statement.
“Her guiding principle, ‘When using science, do so accurately,’ is what the science team at NASA is all about. Her work continues to inspire today’s scientists and engineers across the globe — all in the name of a bolder, more equitable future for all.”
A Martian checkup
Perseverance is going through all of the motions to check out every aspect of the rover’s health before it begins a journey across Jezero Crater in search of ancient life.
“Perseverance has been doing an exceptional job during her first two weeks on the red planet,” said Robert Hogg, the rover’s deputy surface mission manager.
The rover received a software update that will help it explore Mars, and it has been testing out some of the on-board instruments, like ground-penetrating radar and its Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, or MOXIE instrument, that will convert the planet’s carbon dioxide into oxygen.
The rover has also deployed two wind sensors on the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer, or MEDA instrument, which is Perseverance’s personal weather station. The instrument is already sending weather data back to Earth.
Perseverance has also been flexing its 7-foot-long robotic arm, which carries instruments and cameras that will be used to investigate Mars.
“Tuesday’s first test of the robotic arm was a big moment for us,” Hogg said. “That’s the main tool the science team will use to do close-up examination of the geologic features of Jezero Crater, and then we’ll drill and sample the ones they find the most interesting. When we got confirmation of the robotic arm flexing its muscles, including images of it working beautifully after its long trip to Mars — well, it made my day.”
More testing is on the schedule for the rover in the coming weeks to assess the rest of its science instruments. Perseverance will also start exploring longer drives.
In the spring, the rover will deposit the Ingenuity helicopter on the Martian surface so it can prepare for test flights.
Perseverance has been sending back images every step of the way, totaling about 7,000 since landing.
Once all of these checkouts are done and the helicopter has completed its test flights, Perseverance’s science mission will truly begin in earnest.
Images captured by the rover are helping mission scientists plan Perseverance’s route once she begins exploring. They have spied intriguing rocks with differing colors and textures, as well as distinct layering, something the scientists want to investigate more closely with the rover and its instruments. Those layers could help reveal the past climate of Mars.
About a mile-and-a-half away from the rover is a large mound, a rocky outcrop of layered rock deposited by rivers in a delta as they flowed into the ancient lake that once filled Jezero Crater 3.9 billion years ago, Morgan said.
Using images captured above the landing site by NASA’s orbiters around Mars, the science team is plotting out several routes the rover could take to explore these rocks and the outcrop further. Then, the scientists will have to make decisions about where to collect samples from that will eventually be returned to Earth by future missions.
“We landed in a very interesting area where we are trying to figure out the origin of these rocks: Are they volcanic or are they sedimentary?” Morgan said. “From a sampling perspective and a science perspective, we’re interested in sampling the rocks in and around where the rover is now as well as the ones that we’ll see along the way to the delta.”