Mars landing team 'awestruck' by photo of descending rover

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This Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021 photo provided by NASA shows the Perseverance rover lowered towards the surface of Mars during its powered descent. (NASA via AP)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – The world got its first close-up look at a Mars landing on Friday, as NASA released a stunning picture of its newest rover being lowered onto the dusty red surface.

The photo was released less than 24 hours after the Perseverance rover successfully touched down near an ancient river delta, where it will search for signs of ancient life and set aside the most promising rock samples for return to Earth in a decade.

NASA equipped the spacecraft with a record 25 cameras and two microphones, many of which were turned on during Thursday’s descent.

The rover is shown in extraordinary detail just 6 1/2 feet (2 meters) off the ground, being lowered by cables attached to an overhead sky crane, the red dust kicked up by rocket engines. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, promises more photos in the next few days and possibly also an audio recording of the descent.

“This is something that we’ve never seen before,” flight system engineer Aaron Stehura noted at a news conference. “It was stunning, and the team was awestruck. There’s just a feeling of victory that we were able to capture these and share it with the world.”

Chief engineer Adam Steltzner called the picture “iconic," putting it right up there with photos of Apollo 11's Buzz Aldrin on the moon, Saturn as seen by Voyager 1, and the Hubble Space Telescope's “pillars of creation” shot.

A number of thumbnail images have been beamed down so far, too many to count, said Pauline Hwang, strategic mission manager for surface operations. “The team went wild” at seeing these first pictures, she said.

The picture is so clear and detailed that deputy project scientist Katie Stack Morgan at first thought she was looking at a photo from an animation. “Then I did a double take and said: `That's the actual rover!' ”