Is there life on Mars? Perseverance lands on the red planet, searches for signs

The Mars rover Perseverance is currently resting on the surface of the red planet, thanks in part to technology developed right here in the Bay Area.

After eight years of planning and a nearly seven-month trip through space, finally the moment NASA and science lovers had been waiting for; that the rover had made it to the planet's surface safely.

Within minutes the Perseverance rover sent out its first photos of its new home.

NASA engineer Helen Hwang, Mars 2020 Heat Shield Project Manager, watched that moment along with the rest of the world.

"It’s still incredibly nerve wracking," said Hwang. "This is my third Mars mission, and it doesn't get any easier."

In the next few days the rover will begin its primary mission, searching for signs of life, past or present, on the red planet.

"We have more advanced instrumentation that's going to be there, and then we have a helicopter on Mars, and then I think the best part, we're actually going to be collecting soil samples and we're going to bring them back to Earth with two other missions," said Hwang.

None of this would be possible without Hwang and her team's work at NASA Ames in Mountain View. Her team worked to create the heat shield to protect the space craft and rover from 2,500 degree fahrenheit temperatures as it entered the Martian atmosphere.

"We have to take 90% of that kinetic energy that we come in with and basically reject it all to make sure that we don't burn up the rover," said Hwang. "That's the whole point, the whole space craft is just to protect the Perseverance rover."

Scientists around the world and right here in the Bay Area are watching every development in the mission to Mars.

Ben Burress, an astronomer at Chabot Space and Science Center, said big scientific endeavors like this are a gift to the scientific community, but also pay off for society at large.

"So solving the problems, how to drop a robot onto Mars can be some of the same thinking process toward solving problems back on Earth," said Burress. "So, I think it's exercise. "

This is just part one of a multi-year, multi trip mission to Mars. Plans are already underway to develop the Mars sample return missions, to gather the samples Perseverance will leave on the surface as it explores and return those samples to Earth. That sample return mission is currently scheduled for launch in 2026.