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This photo provided by NASA shows one of the six wheels on the Perseverance Mars rover, which landed on Feb. 18, 2021.

/The Associated Press

The world got a welcome lift this week when the nuclear-powered SUV known as Perseverance landed with balletic grace on the dusty surface of Mars. Pictures of NASA technicians leaping to their feet at the magic words “touchdown confirmed” flashed around the globe, thrilling viewers from Istanbul to Santiago.

Adventures like the voyage of Perseverance reveal humanity at its best: bold, curious, inventive, co-operative. At a time when the dark side of the United States was so recently on display, it showed the optimistic, can-do spirit of Americans in action. At a time when science is often under attack from skeptics and conspiracy theorists, it showed what wonders the world can achieve by advancing the boundaries of scientific knowledge. “It’s crazy to imagine that we can do such things,” marvelled Jim Bell, a member of rover’s science team. Yet we can.

The Perseverance mission began when an Atlas rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral at 4:50 a.m. on July 30. Exiting Earth at a speed of 40,000 kilometres an hour, the spacecraft made the 480-million-km trip to Mars as routinely as a morning commute.

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Then, on Thursday afternoon, came the famous seven minutes of terror. Out of touch with NASA, guiding itself by its own instruments, the craft plunged into the Martian atmosphere to begin its descent to the surface. Several different, highly complex systems were required for this perilous landing: a heat shield capable of withstanding temperatures of up to 1,300 C; a parachute that had to deploy without ripping while the craft was still going more than twice the speed of sound; a new “terrain-relative” navigation kit designed to guide it to a safe destination in the Jezero crater.

They all worked flawlessly. When the craft neared the surface, a rocket-powered “sky crane” lowered it to the ground as gently (one science reporter wrote) as a stork depositing a baby.

All this was incredible enough, but the voyage of Perseverance is only beginning. In the coming months it will send a stream of images from some of its 23 cameras back to Earth. It will test the Martian air and the Martian dust. It will zap rocks with lasers to gauge their makeup. It will make oxygen out of carbon dioxide, a bid to determine whether future explorers could produce the rocket fuel to power them home. It will launch a small drone helicopter to test whether flight is possible in the ultrathin air of Mars. NASA has called that an extraterrestrial Wright brothers moment, the first of its kind on another planet.

Perhaps most important, the rover will drill a series of rock cores that could one day be brought back to Earth for analysis. Perseverance itself has no capacity to bring anything home. It will stay on Mars for … well, forever. But NASA and other space agencies are devising a plan to send a future mission to pick up the samples, blast them into Martian orbit and have another spacecraft pick them up and fly them home – what The New York Times called “an interplanetary circus act.”

Are a few Martian rocks really worth all that effort? This mission, like most space exploration, has its detractors. Why spend so much time and money, they ask, when our home planet has so many challenges, from the current fight with a deadly virus to the long-term threat of climate change?

But at US$2.2-billion, Perseverance is a bargain in modern terms. A single subway extension in the Toronto suburbs is supposed to cost twice that. Missions like this push human ingenuity to its limits and throw off all sorts of useful innovations in other fields.

This particular mission aims to answer one of the most profound questions in science: Are we alone? Earlier probes found evidence that there was once water on Mars, a possible precursor for life. This one seeks to find traces of past life itself. Even if it only found hints of long-extinct microbes – and that is by no means certain – it would be a monumental discovery.

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For millenniums humans have looked up at the stars and wondered whether there was life out there. Perseverance could help yield the answer. That enticing possibility more than justifies all the cheers that erupted this week when it touched down on the Red Planet.

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