NASA has released stunning footage of the Perseverance rover landing on Mars, in what is a seminal achievement for the space agency.
Late last week, an unbelievable image showed the rover landing on Mars, taken from a camera aboard the descent stage. Today, NASA did one better, releasing video footage — from the perspective of multiple cameras — of the historic landing, which took place on February 18.
Dave Gruel, Perseverance EDL camera lead at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, oversaw the development of this “nice-to-have function,” he said at a press conference today. His team had to make sure that the cameras would “do no harm” to the rover or descent vehicle, yet be capable of taking worthwhile images. The EDL (Entry, Descent, and Landing) system managed to capture 30 gigabytes of data and 23,000 images as the rover descended toward the surface of the Red Planet.
Three cameras were located on the descent stage, one of which conked out when the parachute unfurled, said Gruel (the remaining two kept working). Two other cameras were affixed to the rover, one looking up and the other looking down. The attached microphone unfortunately failed to record audio during the descent.
Thankfully, the device has since managed to capture audio from the ground, in what are the first sounds ever recorded on Mars by a proper microphone.
The video starts with the deployment of the supersonic parachute, which slowed the descent vehicle to around 1,609 km/h. Watching the video, “you can actually see how violent the parachute deployment actually was,” explained Al Chen, Perseverance EDL lead at JPL, during the press conference. It took just seven-tenths of a second for the parachute to deploy, with no evidence of any tangling, said Chen.
The footage also shows the ejection of the heat shield, which protected the rover during atmospheric entry. Chen said a spring responsible for pushing the heat shield away appears to have come loose, which posed no danger to the spacecraft, but it was something the Mars 2020 team didn’t expect.
The rover can be seen rocking back and forth under the parachute as it descends. The “skycrane” manoeuvre begins when the rover is about 20 metres above the surface. No visible plumes or smoke can be seen coming out of the rockets. That’s because the system runs on hydrazine propellant, which emits nitrogen and hydrogen, both of which are clear gases, Chen explained.
The final moments of the video show the cables lowering the rover to the surface. You can actually see Percy’s legs and wheels deploying to the landing position. One planted on the surface, the cables are released, and the descent stage flies away and crashes off in the distance.
“Gives me goosebumps every time I see it,” said Gruel.
Ken Williford, Perseverance deputy project scientist, said he was very excited about the images from a scientific perspective, saying the EDL cam images showed “beautiful stratigraphy” near the landing site.
During the presser, Justin Maki, Perseverance imaging scientist and instrument operations team chief, provided an update on the rover and its deployment. The team managed to deploy Percy’s remote sensing mast, which is equipped with a host of instruments, including the rover’s left and right navigation cameras, or navcams.
The team took some photos with the newly deployed navcams, showcasing the extraordinary power of these high-res colour cameras. The newly released images showed the landing site, the rover’s deck (which collected a bit of debris during the landing), and the rover’s wheels. The rover’s Mastcam-Z — a new instrument for this mission — was also tested, providing a clear view of the rover’s deck and calibration target.
NASA is now releasing raw images from the Mars 2020 mission, which can be seen here.
Jessica Samuels, Perseverance surface mission manager, said Perseverance is “healthy,” and the Mars 2020 team is “continuing with activities as we’ve been planning them over the first few sols,” or Martian days. They’ve managed to execute 5,000 commands, sending instructions to the vehicle, she said. Importantly, the rover’s high gain antenna has been deployed, allowing the team to send over a higher volume of instructions.
The Ingenuity helicopter — currently attached to the rover’s belly — has also checked in, and it managed to successfully re-charge its batteries. Deploying the helicopter will be among Perseverance’s first tasks, which should happen a couple of months from now.
We’re only four days into this mission, and it’s already provided some of the most extraordinary images we’re ever seen. More to come!