NASA rover Perseverance hurtles toward historic landing attempt on Mars

WATCH: Perseverance Lands on Mars Today in '7 Minutes of Terror'

Perseverance is now set for its mission as Earth's fifth rover on Mars. That launch was carefully timed to get the rover to the planet at its closest to Earth.

"If there is a chance to find signs of ancient life", responded Bridenstine, "that is a place to find it".

Scientists hope that either the instruments on Perseverance, or the samples brought back to Earth for analysis in terrestrial labs in the 2030s, will turn up evidence of past life.

The rover sent back its first images of the landing site immediately after landing.

The car-size, plutonium-powered rover was aiming for NASA's smallest and trickiest target yet: a five-by-four-mile strip on an ancient river delta full of pits, cliffs and fields of rock.

The Perseverance rover landing and the planned demonstration of Ingenuity have been compared by NASA to the first Wright Brothers flights. NASA says the 1.8 kilogram vehicle will attempt its first flight in the coming months.

Because it takes radio waves 11 minutes to travel one way between Mars and Earth, the SUV-sized rover will have already reached the Martian surface - intact or not - by the time its atmospheric entry signal is received at mission control. Known as the "seven minutes of terror", the rover will descend through the Martian atmosphere in a complex, automated sequence that involves parachutes, jetpacks, and critical timing to make sure everything happens when it should.

Congratulations NASA, and welcome to your new home, Perseverance! Some 3.8 billion years ago, a thicker and warmer martian atmosphere allowed water to flow on the surface: One river penetrated Jezero, creating a delta of sediments and filling the crater almost to the rim with water.

Since Perseverance's launch in July 2020, Willis has been working on getting the rover ready to collect samples once it arrives on Mars.

"The question of whether there's life beyond Earth is one of the most fundamental and essential questions we can ask", said NASA geologist Katie Stack Morgan.

"This is one of the most hard maneuvers we make in the space business", Matt Wallace, deputy project manager of NASA's Mars 2020 mission, told reporters on Wednesday. It's a "4-billion-year window into planetary evolution", says Katie Stack Morgan, the mission's deputy project scientist at JPL. But to me, the other part of that is, we'd want to know why there's not life there now.

When "Percy" slowed down to a still-supersonic 1,000 miles per hour, its computer deployed a massive, 70.5-foot-wide parachute and then ditched its heat shield after pulling a head-snapping 9 G's-worth of deceleration. It's about the size of a small auto and it's been created to be sturdy enough to last for years in Mars' extreme environment.

While NASA has done everything possible to ensure success, "there's always this fear that it won't work well, it won't go well", Erisa Stilley, a landing team engineer, said Tuesday. NASA has three Mars satellites still in orbit, along with two from the European Space Agency. Perseverance's total weight is about 2,260 pounds, and the rover is expected to operate for at least two years.

"It really is the beginning of a new era", NASA's associate administrator for science, Thomas Zurbuchen, said earlier in the day during NASA's webcast of the event. This will help NASA study how to produce oxygen from Mars' carbon dioxide atmosphere, an important step for the future of human exploration on Mars.