Cape Canaveral: A NASA rover streaked toward a landing on Mars on Friday AEDT in the riskiest step yet in an epic quest to bring back rocks that could answer whether life ever existed on the red planet.

Ground controllers at the space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, settled in nervously for the descent of Perseverance to the surface of Mars, long a deathtrap for incoming spacecraft. It takes a nail-biting 11 1/2 minutes for a signal that would confirm success to reach Earth. It’s due to land at roughly 7.55 am (AEDT).

In an artist’s rendering, the Perseverance rover fires up its descent stage engines as it nears the Martian surface.Credit:AP

Percy, as it is nicknamed, was designed to drill down with its 2-metre arm and collect rock samples that might hold signs of bygone microscopic life. The plan called for three to four dozen chalk-size samples to be sealed in tubes and set aside on Mars to be retrieved by a fetch rover and brought homeward by another rocket ship, with the goal of getting them back to Earth as early as 2031.

Scientists hope to answer one of the central questions of theology, philosophy and space exploration.

“Are we alone in this sort of vast cosmic desert, just flying through space, or is life much more common? Does it just emerge whenever and wherever the conditions are ripe?” said deputy project scientist Ken Williford. “Big, basic questions, and we don’t know the answers yet. So we’re really on the verge of being able to potentially answer these enormous questions.”

China’s spacecraft includes a smaller rover that also will be seeking evidence of life — if it makes it safely down from orbit in May or June.

Perseverance’s descent has been described by NASA as “seven minutes of terror,” in which flight controllers can only watch helplessly. The preprogrammed spacecraft was designed to hit the thin Martian atmosphere at 19,500 km/h, then use a parachute to slow it down and a rocket-steered platform known as a sky crane to lower the rover the rest of the way to the surface.

Mars has proved a treacherous place: In the span of less than three months in 1999, a US spacecraft was destroyed upon entering orbit because engineers had mixed up metric and English units, and an American lander crashed on Mars after its engines cut out prematurely.

NASA is teaming up with the European Space Agency to bring the rocks home. Perseverance’s mission alone costs nearly $US3 billion.

The only way to confirm — or rule out — signs of past life is to analyze the samples in the world’s best labs. Instruments small enough to be sent to Mars wouldn’t have the necessary precision.

“The Mars sample return project is probably the most challenging thing we’ve ever attempted within NASA,” said planetary science director Lori Glaze, “and we don’t do any of these things alone.”

AP

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