If NASA’s $2.7 billion flagship mobile science laboratory, Perseverance, successfully touches down in Jezero Crater on Mars on February 18, the feat will not only open a new chapter in exploration of the Red Planet, but also mark the triumphant culmination of four decades of increasingly challenging landings there. Replete with sedimentary rocks that might contain fossilized creatures from the planet’s warmer, wetter, more habitable past, Perseverance’s destination—the dried-up delta-and-lake system of Jezero Crater—seems so ideal for sniffing out signs of ancient life that one might wonder why it as of yet has remained unvisited. The answer is simple: Attempting a landing in such complex terrain has been a recipe for disaster. At least, until now.

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