The American space agency has released the first high-quality visuals of its Perseverance lander, touching down on the surface of Mars on 18 February. The trailer, all of the three-and-a-half minutes, shows an orange-and-white parachute shoot out of the landing module during its descent, and Martian dirt being kicked up thrusters lower the rover to the ground. Mission controllers also received the first status report from the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, which is due to attempt the first-ever flight on another world in the coming weeks.
The footage from Perseverance was reportedly “amazing,” with members of the rover team saying they were given the feeling of “riding along.” The team at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, shared the video at a news conference.
“These videos and these images are the stuff of our dreams,” said Al Chen, who was in charge of the landing team.
The heat shield protecting Perseverance during its entry into the Martian atmosphere can be seen falling away, as planned, followed by the rover’s touchdown in the Jezero Crater, just above the planet’s equator.
NASA had fitted Perseverance, its biggest and most capable rover to date, with 25 cameras in total – the most ever sent to Mars. Six of these cameras were devoted to just the entry, descent, and landing,’ offering multiple perspectives of the critical mission milestone.
The lone microphone that was left on during landing to record any audio can fail. But NASA got some snippets of sound after the landing, in which the mechanical hum of the rover’s systems and gusts of wind are audible.
“What you hear there, 10 seconds in, is an actual wind gust on the surface of Mars picked up by the microphone and sent back to us here on Earth,” Dave Gruel, lead engineer for the camera and microphone system on Perseverance, told AFP.
The Perseverance rover touched down close to an ancient river delta in the Jezero Crater. Its mission will be seeking out signatures of ancient, microscopic life on the Red Planet. It will spend the next two years exploring the dry river delta and drilling into rocks that may hold evidence of life 3 billion to 4 billion years ago. The core samples will be set aside for return to Earth in a decade.
Ingenuity phones home
Mission controllers also received the first status report from the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, a rotorcraft that remains attached to the Perseverance rover’s belly. The communication came via NASA’s satellite, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. It indicated that both the helicopter and its base station – an electrical box on the rover that stores and routes communications between the rotorcraft and Earth – are operating as the mission team expected. According to a NASA statement, ingenuity will remain attached to the rover for the next 30 to 60 days.
If Ingenuity survives these frigid Martian nights – where temperatures dip to lows of minus 90 degrees Celsius – the mission team will proceed with the first flight on another world. The statement adds that a successful attempt to take-off and hover during its first flight will accomplish 90 percent of the project’s key goals. If Ingenuity manages to land successfully and remain operable, NASA may send four successors, “each building on the success of the last.” These descendants of the Ingenuity rotorcraft can bring an aerial dimension to the exploration of Mars.