Watch the nail-biting video of the Mars rover landing on the Red Planet
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What’s it like to land on Mars?
Wonder no longer: On Monday afternoon, NASA released first-of-its-kind video footage of a probe’s descent to the Red Planet. The recording, plus first-ever audio recordings taken on the Martian surface, reveal the anxiety-inducing moments that led up to the touchdown of NASA’s latest rover, Perseverance, on Mars Thursday.
The clip features the rover dropping from the upper Martian atmosphere, starting 12 kilometers above the surface, to the ground. Scientists refer to this phase as “seven minutes of terror,” a stressful, make-or-break part of the mission that could, if anything goes wrong, end in a crash.
Perseverance stuck the landing. “This is the first time we’ve been able to actually capture an event like the landing of a spacecraft on Mars,” said Mike Watkins, director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, during a press conference. “We watched it many, many times. It’s really fantastic.”
The video begins with the rover plummeting toward the mostly frozen desert planet at 1.7 times the speed of sound. The spacecraft quickly deploys a red-and-white parachute that helps slow it down for a safe landing.
As the video continues, a rocket-propelled vehicle called a Skycrane lowers the rover, via tethering cables, to the Martian surface. As the apparatus approaches the ground, it kicks up a cloud of dust before jettisoning off and leaving the rover in the dirt.
“I’m sure we’ll be studying this video for many, many years and picking it apart frame by frame,” said Al Chen, Perseverance’s entry, descent, and landing lead. The team will use what it learns to improve the engineering on future missions, he said.
Previous Mars rover missions captured only still images of this crucial phase. Scientists then stitched together the images into a stop-motion animation, sort of like a GIF movie, when the Curiosity rover landed on Mars in 2012. (Curiosity is still operational.)
In addition to the video, NASA released new photos and, for the first time, audio recordings collected on the Martian surface. While the spacecraft’s microphones malfunctioned during descent, they worked after the touchdown.
“I invite you now to close your eyes and just imagine yourself sitting on the surface of Mars and listening to the surroundings,” said Dave Gruel, lead engineer for Perseverance’s camera and microphone subsystems, before playing the audio clip.
“The gentle whirring that happens in the background, that is a noise made by the rover,” Gruel continued. “But yes, what you did hear, 10 seconds in, was an actual wind gust on the surface of Mars picked up by the microphone.”
Only half the 18 or so surface-bound missions to Mars have been successful to date, all of the triumphs belonging the United States. The USSR technically succeeded once in 1971, but the connection to its probe cut out minutes into its first transmission. (China currently has a rover headed for the surface.)
NASA released other imagery from the Perseverance mission in recent days. Scientists published 145 black-and-white photos and several color photos beamed back by the rover. One image shows a sweeping survey of the surrounding crater site, another is a partial selfie of the rover’s back wheel, and another still shows a close-up of the rover descending downward through the atmosphere.
Perseverance is set to explore its landing site, Jezero Crater, an ancient lake that formed roughly 3.5 billion years ago after a meteorite smashed into the then-wet planet. Scientists believe the area could contain traces of organic compounds or fossilized microbes that might provide the first evidence of extraterrestrial life.
Perseverance has 23 cameras on board, two microphones, multiple sensors, and an experimental drone helicopter. It will be a month or two before the rover starts wending its way around the ancient river delta, drilling through rocks and collecting samples of the sediment.
“I’m so moved by this,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA headquarters, speaking about the newly released video, photos, and audio recordings. The new media transports people to an alien world without their “putting on a pressure suit,” he said, referring to the protective gear humans would have to don to survive the inhospitable environment of Mars.
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