The Perseverance rover took its first test drive on the surface of Mars this week, traversing some 21 feet of terrain in a short trip that scientists say represents a major milestone.
NASA said the rover ventured out from its landing site on Thursday, exactly two weeks after it first touched down on the red planet. The drive, which lasted about 33 minutes, served as an important test of the rover’s mobility system.
Anais Zarifian, Perseverance mobility test bed engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said that when it comes to wheeled vehicles on other planets, few events are more significant than the initial drive.
“This was our first chance to ‘kick the tires’ and take Perseverance out for a spin,” she said. “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.”
The rover moved forward 13 feet, turned 150 degrees to the left and then backed up 8 feet into its new temporary parking space, NASA said. It also captured photos of its touchdown site and the wheel tracks it left behind.
Eventually, NASA said, Perseverance will be making “regular commutes” of 656 feet or more as it searches the Jezero Crater for signs of ancient life.
The rover is still undergoing a period of initial evaluation, with more detailed testing and calibration, as well as longer drives, planned for the weeks ahead. The team has already crossed a series of other important firsts off its list in recent days, according to NASA.
Those include completing a software update, deploying two wind sensors and testing the rover’s 7-foot-long robotic arm for the first time. That process, on Tuesday, involved flexing each of the arm’s five joints over the course of two hours.
The robotic arm is crucial to the rover’s mission, Perseverance Rover Deputy Mission Manager Robert Hogg explained, as it is the primary tool the team will use to closely examine Jezero’s geologic features before deciding which ones to drill and sample.
“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,” Hogg said.
Also this week, scientists memorialized the spot where Perseverance touched down by unofficially naming it after the legendary science fiction writer Octavia Butler, who died in 2006.
Butler, a native of Pasadena, Calif., was the first Black woman to win both the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award — the highest honors in the science fiction and fantasy genres — as well as the first science fiction writer to be honored with a MacArthur Fellowship. She is known for books including “Kindred,” “Wild Seed” and “Parable of the Sower.”
“Butler’s protagonists embody determination and inventiveness, making her a perfect fit for the Perseverance rover mission and its theme of overcoming challenges,” said Kathryn Stack Morgan, deputy project scientist for Perseverance. “Butler inspired and influenced the planetary science community and many beyond, including those typically under-represented in STEM fields.”
Earthbound viewers can continue getting a firsthand look at Martian terrain through the trove of images Perseverance is sending back from space.
The mission has already beamed down some 7,000 images, NASA said, thanks to an advanced suite of cameras, NASA’s worldwide network of spacecraft communication facilities and a number of other Mars orbiters.
Justin Maki, the imaging scientist for the Perseverance mission at JPL, said that every picture from the rover is relayed by either the European Space Agency’s Trace Gas Orbiter, or NASA’s MAVEN, Mars Odyssey or Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
“When you see a beautiful image from Jezero, consider that it took a whole team of Martians to get it to you,” he said.