Perseverance is a good word to describe the year that was. We have persevered through a global pandemic at a level of severity not seen in more than a century, and we have persevered through endless restrictions and lockdowns that were instituted to combat it and stop its spread.

And so it is that this news story is particularly appropriate now. 

Perseverance is the name of the latest NASA mission to the planet Mars, and today the team behind it announced that it has landed safely on the red planet.

The Perseverance probe was launched last July, in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, and has been traveling through space since then. Today it landed on target at the Jezero crater, and will begin its mission of collecting rock and soil samples from various locations on the Martian surface. The probe can do some experiments on these samples, and then transmit the results back to Earth, but its bigger goal will be the possible return of some samples for more detailed study in about ten years time. 

There are many reasons why we want to study Martian soil and rock, and these latest experiments are expected to teach us more about planetary formation and evolution. However the more interesting possibility is that it could discover microbial life in the Martian soil, either currently living there or fossils from the distant past. (The Jezero crate location was specifically chosen because it is part of a delta that was formed by a Martian river system believed to have existed approximately three to four billion years ago. On Earth, the best place to look for microbial life is in similar river deltas) Either way it would be the first proof that life can exist on other worlds, and elsewhere in both the Solar System and in the larger Universe. 

Also on the mission is an experimental helicopter drone. It will not be participating in the experiments, but will instead be demonstrating a new technology that could be used in future missions. If successful it will mark the first powered flight on another world, which is especially tricky on Mars as its air density is less than 1% of the Earth's atmosphere. Due to the time delay in communications with Earth, this drone will need to launch itself, guide its own flight, and then land safely entirely on its own. And as part of the mission goals, it must be able to repeat this feat multiple times, so crash landings would be counterproductive. If it is successful, then future NASA probes will be constructed that can fly over larger areas of the Martian surface than can be reached by ground based rovers.

And for those whose interests are more visual than scientific, the Perseverance probe is also equipped with twenty-five cameras and two microphones, all of which were running during its historic descent to the surface. In the next few days we can expect some amazing photos and video footage of the landing, and possibly the first audio recordings of a landing as well.

This should be an exciting mission to watch, and there is every reason to expect that it will provide planetary scientists and geologists with some amazing new information about our neighbouring world, and about planetary formation in general. 

For tonight, let us celebrate the amazing achievements of the NASA Perseverance team!