Humanity just got a front-row seat to a Mars landing, thanks to a high-resolution, full-colour video that NASA released of its Perseverance rover descending into Jezero Crater on 18 February.
The video shows the drama of the spacecraft’s final descent, from the 21.5-metre-wide parachute billowing overhead to slow it down, to the dusty orange landscape of Jezero gently rocking below as Perseverance drifted downward, to the final moments when the rover’s six corrugated wheels touched down on a flat, rock-studded surface.
“You are getting a glimpse into what it would be like to land successfully into Jezero Crater with Perseverance,” says Matt Wallace, the mission’s deputy project manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. “This is the first time we’ve been able to see ourselves — to see our spacecraft — land on the surface of another planet.”
“These videos are the stuff of our dreams,” says Al Chen, an engineer at JPL who heads the entry, descent and landing team for Perseverance.
From above, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter photographed the debris of the landing — the discarded parachute, heat shield, and other components — spread out across Jezero.
All systems on board the rover have checked out as healthy, says Jessica Samuels of JPL, the rover’s surface mission manager. Over the weekend it switched on its high-gain antenna, to communicate more efficiently with Earth, and raised a tall mast laden with cameras to survey its surroundings.
Initial images taken by the rover’s navigation cameras and stitched together into a 360-degree panorama show the high cliffs of an ancient river delta in the distance. That delta is the reason NASA sent Perseverance to Jezero, because the rocks may contain evidence of fossilized microbial life from more than 3.5 billion years ago. Perseverance is currently about 2 kilometres away from the delta.
The rocks on the surface near the landing site come in several different varieties, from small light-coloured ones studded with holes close to the rover, to larger, darker-coloured versions farther in the distance. “We’re noticing the different colors that we see, and textures and tones,” says Ken Williford of JPL, the mission’s deputy project scientist. Team geologists will study the rocks further to understand how they formed, including whether the holes in the ones nearby formed when gas burbled out of molten lava. That will allow scientists to piece together the geological history of the area.
A microphone on board Perseverance has also captured the sound of a 5-metre-per-second wind gust on the surface. It is the first audio ever recorded on Mars, other than seismic signals from NASA’s InSight lander that have been translated into audio.
In the coming days Perseverance will straighten up its wheels and do a short drive, then unfold and test its robotic arm that is laden with scientific instruments. Over the coming months and years the rover will drive many kilometres, drilling and collecting samples of different types of rocks that future missions are meant to retrieve and bring back to Earth for the first time, no earlier than 2031.