The Mars rover Perseverance and its feisty sidekick helicopter Ingenuity have set records and pushed new frontiers for interplanetary space exploration since landing on the Red Planet one year ago this Friday.
The flawless landing of the rover in Mars' Jezero Crater, on Feb. 18, 2021, kicked off a year of successes, including the first rock sample drilled on another planet, the first time oxygen has been extracted from Martian air and the first powered, controlled flight on another planet.
The single biggest surprise of the mission is that Ingenuity has now flown 19 times and almost nine months longer than intended, Rick Welch, Mars 2020 deputy project manager, told UPI in an interview.
As a result, NASA decided to extend the tiny, 4-pound helicopter's mission indefinitely as a scout for the rover in September.
"It's awesome to see how Ingenuity survived long enough where it could actually do scientific scouting for us," Welch said in response to questions about the one-year anniversary of the landing on Mars. "Seeing it live longer was really a surprise because I had not thought through anything beyond, let's just show we can fly on Mars."
Welch noted that other highlights of the mission include seeing the first high-resolution panorama image of the crater's surroundings in February, and proving that Perseverance's new auto navigation system worked as planned in July.
"Seeing that Perseverance had automatically avoided a rock on Mars, the photos showing tracks of the rover going around that rock -- that was an awesome image," Welch said.
Finally, he said the first successful rock sample collection in September was a big highlight.
The rover is on a hunt for signs of possible ancient life in the crater, believed to be an ancient lake. NASA intends to bring those rock samples back to Earth on future missions.
Though the landing of the rover in February was flawless, the mission wound up a little farther from Jezero Crater's ancient river delta than expected, according to Ken Farley, NASA project scientist.
But NASA turned that distance into an asset by exploring rocks on the more remote floor of the crater, and that led to the most profound scientific finding of the mission so far in December, he said.
"I definitely expected to find lake sediment. Instead, we found these igneous, or volcanic, rocks," Farley told UPI. "So the igneous rocks are great for sample return because they show us the age range of the local geology."
Although Farley and other scientists can't be sure, they believe Martian winds have blown away the lake sediment rocks over billions of years, exposing the volcanic rock underneath. But they are confident Perseverance will find more sedimentary rocks near the ancient delta.
Farley noted that the rover's sample collection had to overcome two challenges. First, in August, the first rock the rover drilled crumbled into dust, leaving no sample. The rover moved on to harder rocks after that.
Then, in December, rocks got stuck in its collection chamber. Engineers worked for weeks to finally dump out the pesky pebbles.
"We've overcome some obstacles and have learned a lot," Farley said.
The discovery of volcanic rocks on the crater floor was also a highlight of the mission for other involved academics, Amy Williams, an assistant professor of geological sciences and astrobiology at University of Florida, told UPI in an interview.
"Imagine our surprise as we start to explore the crater floor, and we find that instead of sitting on a lake bed, which is what we expected, we're actually sitting on a bunch of igneous rocks," Williams said.
That discovery demonstrated the necessity to actually visit another planet, rather than studying it from telescopes or spacecraft, she said.
This rock almost looked surprised that I was coming back! Thankfully, I was able to collect another sample here to replace the one I discarded earlier. This may be one of the oldest rocks I sample, so it could help us understand the history of this place. #SamplingMars pic.twitter.com/I1kqdNSchR— NASA's Perseverance Mars Rover (@NASAPersevere) January 31, 2022
She also lauded the performance of Ingenuity as a source of fascination for scientists and the public alike.
"As a geologist, I'm ecstatic to know that we can drill rock cores on another planet," she said.
The entire mission has gone well, Robert Zubrin, founder of the non-profit space exploration advocacy group The Mars Society, said in an interview.
"The most profound thing, in terms of its implications for future exploration, is actually Ingenuity," Zubrin said.
Just like rovers, which got bigger over time, he expects bigger aircraft headed to other planets in the future.
"We just sent an aircraft to Mars the size of a toy helicopter and, you know, 25 years from now we will be sending aircraft to Mars the size of real helicopters," he said.
As for the rock samples, Zubrin isn't so sure. He hopes that SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk will be landing people on Mars to collect them soon.
Copyright © UPI, 2022. All Rights Reserved.