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‘Extraordinary’: Scientist reacts to landing of Mars rover with MIT experiment aboard

Scientists at NASA celebrated rover Perseverance's successful landing on Mars Thursday afternoon.
Scientists at NASA celebrated rover Perseverance's successful landing on Mars Thursday afternoon.NASA

An MIT scientist whose team developed an experiment aboard the Mars rover said Friday he had to “whoop and holler” after its audacious landing on the Red Planet.

“I would have expected … just a huge sigh of relief, but no, this was like somebody just scored the winning touchdown on a Hail Mary pass in the Super Bowl,” said Michael Hecht, associate director for research management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Haystack Observatory.

“It just was time to whoop and holler. It was extraordinary and every part of this was extraordinary,” Hecht said.

The Perseverance rover successfully touched down on Mars Thursday afternoon, completing a nearly seven-month-long trek through space.

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This photo provided by NASA shows one of the six wheels on the Perseverance Mars rover, which landed on Thursday.
This photo provided by NASA shows one of the six wheels on the Perseverance Mars rover, which landed on Thursday.Associated Press

Among the things the rover is carrying: the MIT-designed MOXIE, or “Mars OXygen In situ resource utilization Experiment.” The experiment is intended to determine whether carbon dioxide in Mars’s atmosphere can be converted into oxygen, which could be crucial if mankind ever tries to establish a settlement on Mars.

Hecht, who worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for 30 years before coming to MIT, said seeing the years of hard work put in to MOXIE and the Perseverance rover pay off was incredibly rewarding.

“It’s just been a stunning change” from imagining and preparing for the mission to seeing it happen, he said. “All of a sudden, the energy level just kicked up a whole lot now that it’s real.”

Hecht and the team at MIT will learn in three days whether MOXIE survived the trip.

“We fully expect it to be, but that will be another one [where] you hold your breath and then exhale [when] we get the data back,” he said. “We don’t know that yet. So far, everything that we’ve tested on the rover has been fine, has been alive, but we don’t know.”

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18mars   -   MOXIE being lowered into the Perseverance rover. The device, which seeks to turn carbon dioxide into oxygen, is set to land on Mars aboard the rover on Thursday.    (Credit: R Lannom)
18mars - MOXIE being lowered into the Perseverance rover. The device, which seeks to turn carbon dioxide into oxygen, is set to land on Mars aboard the rover on Thursday. (Credit: R Lannom) R. Lannom

MOXIE will slowly ramp up into action, taking its time before beginning to make oxygen, Hecht said.

“It’s an abundance of caution. You only get one shot at this,” he said. “It’s kind of like to be free to actually take the car out in the road you have to make sure the brakes work.”

The rover’s main mission is to search for signs of past Martian life and obtain samples of soil and rock that could someday be hauled back to Earth for study in laboratories.

Hecht said as data continues to stream in from Perseverance, scientists on the ground won’t be getting much sleep.

“Very few of us got any sleep last night and we’re not slated to get much sleep today,” he said.

Material from Globe wire services was used in this report.