How Time Flies: Perseverance and Ingenuity Have Been on Mars for a Year

What a year it’s been — Earth year, that is!

The dramatic touchdown on Mars for the Perseverance rover and the stowaway Ingenuity helicopter on February 18, 2021 was a bright moment in a tumultuous year here on Earth. And even though the pandemic meant that many people were watching the event from home – even some of the Mars rover team – NASA made sure to share the event as widely as possible.

Here’s a video highlight of that day, with pictures and video from both planets, and watching it brings smiles, goosebumps tears of joy. Of course, the incredible video we received of the landing from from the rover itself – especially the sky-crane lowering Perseverance to the planet’s surface — is nothing short of stunning.

The Mars 2020 rover has been on Mars for over 355 Martian days, or sols. A Mars year is 668 sols.

In the past (Earth) year, the six-wheeled, one-armed nuclear-powered mobile science lab has traversing through Jezero Crater, a location that very likely contained a lake billions of years ago. Recently, Perseverance has been using the drill on the end of its robotic arm to collect samples of Martian rocks. Collecting these samples is the first step of an eventual Mars Sample Return campaign.

“The samples Perseverance has been collecting will provide a key chronology for the formation of Jezero Crater,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “Each one is carefully considered for its scientific value.”

Jezero features some of the oldest rocks Mars scientists have been able to study up close. The scientists say those rocks will have recorded and preserved Mars’ past environments, and perhaps even signs of ancient microscopic life – which is one of Percy’s prime search missions.

Perseverance took this view of a hill called Santa Cruz on April 21, 2021. The boulders in the foreground are about 20 inches (50 centimeters) across, on average. Perseverance will return to the area next week or so. Credit: NASA/JPL/ASU/MSSS.

“Right now, we take what we know about the age of impact craters on the Moon and extrapolate that to Mars,” said Katie Stack Morgan, Perseverance’s deputy project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, which manages the rover mission. “Bringing back a sample from this heavily cratered surface in Jezero could provide a tie-point to calibrate the Mars crater dating system independently, instead of relying solely on the lunar one.”

Recently, Perseverance broke a record for the most distance driven by a Mars rover in a single day, traveling almost 1,050 feet (320 meters). This took place on Feb. 14, 2022, the 351st Martian day, or sol, of the mission. And NASA said the rover performed the entire drive using AutoNav, the self-driving software that allows Perseverance to find its own path around rocks and other obstacles.

One of the biggest surprises of the mission has been the rover’s buddy, the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter. No one knew for sure it would work to fly the tiny helicopter in the thin Martian atmosphere, and the original plan had the helicopter taking up to five flights over the span of about 30 days. Instead, ‘Ginny’ has now completed 19 flights over the past 10 months and is still going strong. The team says the helicopter is providing a new perspective of Martian terrain and helping Perseverance’s team to plan the path ahead.

Perseverance and Inguity, together on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL.

And looking ahead — while looking back — is what the rover scientists have been doing. Perseverance will actually be heading back towards its landing site. This back-tracking was in the mission plan, as the team wanted to first explore a rocky portion of the crater floor called South Séítah. That was the first phase of the mission, which will soon be wrapping up.

The second phase of the rover’s mission will be to study the remains of a fan-shaped delta formed by an ancient river as it fed the lake in Jezero Crater. The safest way to get to the delta is by backtracking, since the other route would mean Perseverance would have to cross risky sand dunes and other rough terrain.

Scientists want to get to the delta because they normally accumulate sediment over time, potentially trapping organic matter and possible biosignatures – or signs of life – that may be in the environment. NASA said that makes this destination, which the mission expects to reach in the summer of 2022, a highlight of the year ahead.

But let’s look back to a year ago one more time! The incredible views of the sky-crane lowering Perseverance to the surface starts at about 2:25 in this video: