After sailing through space for seven months, NASA’s Mars rover Perseverance, the most advanced astrobiology lab ever sent to another planet, landed safely on the Red Planet on Thursday to begin a search for traces of ancient microbial life.

The six-wheeled vehicle came to rest about 2 km from towering cliffs at the foot of a remnant fan-shaped river delta of the crater, considered a prime spot for geo-biological study on Mars, according to Reuters.

“Touchdown confirmed,” Swati Mohan, the lead guidance and operations specialist announced from the control room. “Perseverance safely on the surface of Mars.”

The robotic vehicle covered a distance of 472 million km over seven months before piercing the Martian atmosphere at 19,000 km per hour to begin its descent to the planet’s surface.

NASA dubbed the spacecraft’s descent and landing during a complex series of maneuvers “the seven minutes of terror”. Because it takes radio waves 11 minutes to travel from Mars to Earth, the rover had already reached Martian soil by the time its arrival was confirmed to Earth.

Moments after touchdown, Perseverance beamed back its first black-and-white images from the Martian surface, one of them showing the rover’s shadow cast on the desolate, rocky landing site.

NASA said a key objective for Perseverance’s mission on Mars is astrobiology, including the search for signs of ancient microbial life. The rover will characterise the planet’s geology and past climate, pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet, and be the first mission to collect and cache Martian rock and regolith (broken rock or soil).

Larger and packed with more instruments than the four Mars rovers preceding it, Perseverance is set to build on previous findings that liquid water once flowed on the Martian surface and that carbon and other minerals altered by water and considered precursors to the evolution of life were present.

Perseverance’s payload also includes demonstration projects that could help pave the way for eventual human exploration of Mars, including a device to convert the carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere into pure oxygen, according to Reuters.

Another experimental prototype carried by Perseverance is a miniature helicopter designed to test the first powered, controlled flight of an aircraft on another planet. If successful, the helicopter could lead to low-altitude aerial surveillance of distant worlds, officials said.

“This landing is one of those pivotal moments for NASA, the United States, and space exploration globally – when we know we are on the cusp of discovery and sharpening our pencils, so to speak, to rewrite the textbooks,” said acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk.

United States President Joe Biden hailed Perseverance’s historic landing. “Today proved once again that with the power of science and American ingenuity, nothing is beyond the realm of possibility,” he wrote on Twitter.