By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES, Feb 19 (Reuters) - NASA scientists on Fridaypresented striking early images from the picture-perfect landingof the Mars rover Perseverance, including a selfie of thesix-wheeled vehicle dangling just above the surface of the RedPlanet moments before touchdown.
The color photograph, likely to become an instant classicamong memorable images from the history of spaceflight, wassnapped by a camera mounted on the rocket-powered "sky crane"descent-stage just above the rover as the car-sized spacevehicle was being lowered on Thursday to Martian soil.
The image was unveiled by mission managers during an onlinenews briefing webcast from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory(JPL) near Los Angeles less than 24 hours after the landing.
The picture, looking down on the rover, shows the entirevehicle suspended from three cables unspooled from the skycrane, along with an "umbilical" communications cord. Swirls ofdust kicked up by the crane's rocket thrusters are also visible.
Seconds later, the rover was gently planted on its wheels,its tethers were severed, and the sky crane - its job completed- flew off to crash a safe distance away, though not beforephotos and other data collected during the descent weretransmitted to the rover for safekeeping.
The image of the dangling science lab, striking for itsclarity and sense of motion, marks the first such close-up photoof a spacecraft landing on Mars, or any planet beyond Earth.
"This is something we've never seen before," Aaron Stehura,a deputy lead for the mission's descent and landing team,describing himself and colleagues as "awe-struck" when firstviewing the image.
Adam Steltzner, chief engineer for the Perseverance projectat JPL, said he found the image instantly iconic, comparable tothe shot of Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin standing on the moonin 1969, or the Voyager 1 probe's images of Saturn in 1980.
He said the viewer is connected with a landmark momentrepresenting years of work by thousands of individuals.
"You are brought to the surface of Mars. You're sittingthere, seven meters off the surface of the rover looking down,"he said. "It's absolutely exhilarating, and it is evocative ofthose other images from our experience as human beings movingout into our solar system."
The image was taken at the very end of the so-called"seven-minutes-of-terror" descent sequence that broughtPerseverance from the top of Mars' atmosphere, traveling at12,000 miles per hour, to a gentle touchdown on the floor of avast basin called the Jezero Crater.
Next week, NASA hopes to present more photos and video -some possibly with audio - taken by all six cameras affixed tothe descending spacecraft, showing more of the sky cranemaneuvers, as well as the supersonic parachute deployment thatpreceded it.
Pauline Hwang, strategic mission manager, said the roveritself "is doing great and is healthy on the surface of Mars,and continues to be highly functional and awesome."
The vehicle landed about two kilometers from tall cliffs atthe base of a ancient river delta carved into the corner of thecrater billions of years ago, when Mars was warmer, wetter andpresumably hospitable to life.
Scientists say the site is ideal for pursuing Perseverance'sprimary objective - searching for fossilized traces of microbiallife preserved in sediments believed to have been depositedaround the delta and the long-vanished lake it once fed.
Samples of rock drilled from the Martian soil are to bestored on the surface for eventual retrieval and delivery toEarth by two future robotic missions to the Red Planet, as earlyas 2031.
Another color photo published on Friday, captured momentsafter the rover's arrival, shows a rocky expanse of terrainaround the landing site and what appear to be the delta cliffsin the distance.
The mission's surface team will spend the coming days andweeks unfastening, unfurling and testing the vehicle's robotarm, communication antennae and other equipment, aligninginstruments and upgrading the rover's software, Hwang said.
She said it would be about nine "sols," or Martian days,before the rover is ready for its first test spin.
One of Perseverance's tasks before embarking on its searchfor signs of microbial life will be to deploy a miniaturehelicopter it carried to Mars for an unprecedentedextraterrestrial test flight. But Hwang said that effort wasstill about two months away.(Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Daniel Wallis)