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Mars landing team 'awestruck' by photo of descending rover

This photo provided by NASA shows the first color image sent by the Perseverance Mars rover after its landing on Feb. 18, 2021. (NASA/JPL-Caltech via AP)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) -- 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.

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

    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 stunning 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 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.

    "We were just kind of like on cloud nine .. this weird dreamlike state, we can't actually believe this is what we're seeing," she said.

    The spacecraft is healthy, according to officials, after landing on a flat, safe surface in Jezero Crater with just 1 degree of tilt and relatively small rocks nearby. For now, the systems still are being checked. It will be at least a week before the rover starts driving.

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