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NASA’s Perseverance rover has touched down on Mars

The NASA Perseverance rover has landed. “Touchdown confirmed! Perseverance is safely on the surface of Mars, ready to begin seeking the signs of past life,” NASA engineer Swati Mohan said during a Feb. 18 livestream of the landing.

The Perseverance team released some of the first images from the landing during a news briefing on February 19, including pictures of the Martian surface, the rover dangling below its landing gear and an action shot from another spacecraft orbiting Mars. This is the beginning of Perseverance’s mission to explore an ancient river delta called Jezero crater, searching for signs of ancient life and collecting rocks for a future mission to return to Earth (SN: 7/28/20).

The team released the first color image from Perseverance during the Feb. 19 briefing. “As soon as we got that color image, our chats just lit up with the scientists saying, look over here! Look over here!” said deputy project scientist Katie Stack Morgan. “We’re really doing science now on the surface of Mars.”

color image of the martian surface
This is the first color image Perseverance took on the surface of Mars. The image is from the rover’s hazard-avoidance camera after the rover removed a protective dust cover.JPL-CALTECH/NASA

The rover caps off a month of Mars arrivals from space agencies around the world (SN: 7/30/20). Perseverance joins Hope, the first interplanetary mission from the United Arab Emirates, which successfully entered Mars orbit on February 9; and Tianwen-1, China’s first Mars mission, which arrived on February 10 and will deploy a rover to the Martian surface in May.

black and white image of the martian surface from perseverance rover
NASA’s Perseverance rover sent back this image of its landing spot on Mars after touchdown. The image was taken with one of the rover’s hazard cameras, which is partially obscured by a dust cover.JPL-Caltech/NASA

NASA broadcast Perseverance’s landing on YouTube starting at 2:15 p.m. EST, with the moment of touchdown at approximately 3:55 p.m. on February 18. The rover used the landing system pioneered by its predecessor, Curiosity, which has been exploring Mars since 2012 (SN: 8/6/12). But in a first for Mars touchdowns, this rover recorded its own landing with dedicated cameras and a microphone.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter caught this image of Perseverance falling to the surface of the Red Planet, slowed by a parachute. The background shows an ancient river delta in Jezero crater, where scientists hope to find signs of past life on Mars.JPL-CALTECH/NASA

As the craft carrying Perseverance zoomed through the thin Martian atmosphere, three cameras looked up at the parachute slowing it down from supersonic speeds. When a rocket-powered “sky crane” platform lowered the rover to the ground, a fourth camera on the platform recorded the rover’s descent. Another camera on the rover looked back up at the platform, and a sixth camera looked at the ground.

diagram of Perseverance rover landing plan
Perseverance will use the “sky crane” landing system pioneered by its predecessor, Curiosity. The landing involves dangling the rover from a floating platform on cables and touching down directly on its wheels.JPL-Caltech/NASA
diagram of Perseverance rover landing plan
Perseverance will use the “sky crane” landing system pioneered by its predecessor, Curiosity. The landing involves dangling the rover from a floating platform on cables and touching down directly on its wheels.JPL-Caltech/NASA

“The goal is to see the video and the action of getting from high up in the atmosphere down to the surface,” says engineer David Gruel of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, who was the engineering lead for that six-camera system, called EDL-Cam. He hopes every engineer on the team has an image of the rover hanging below the descent stage as their computer desktop background six months from now. One of the images released February 19 could make that possible. The image shows the rover hanging from the sky crane platform.

image of rover dangling above Mars surface
This image shows Perseverance dangling below the sky crane platform, which was hovering above Mars’ surface using rockets like a jetpack.JPL-CALTECH/NASA

“When we first saw this image, it was exhilarating,” said strategic mission manager Pauline Hwang during the Feb. 19 press briefing. “The team went wild.”

Because it will take more than 11 minutes for signals to travel between Earth and Mars, the cameras didn’t stream the landing movie in real time. And after Perseverance landed, engineers were focused on making sure the rover is healthy and able to collect science data, so the landing videos weren’t among the first data sent back. Gruel expects to be able to share what the rover saw four days after landing, on February 22.

Perseverance also carries microphones to record first-ever audio of a Mars landing. Unlike the landing cameras, the microphones will continue to work after touchdown, hopefully helping the engineering team keep track of the rover’s health. Motors sound different when they get clogged with dust, for instance, Gruel says. The team will hear the sound of the rover’s wheels crunching across the Martian surface, and maybe the sound of the wind blowing.

“Are we going to hear a dust devil? What might a dust devil sound like? Could we hear rocks rolling down a hill?” Gruel asks. “You never know what we might stumble onto.”

Sound will add a way to share Mars with people who have trouble seeing, Gruel notes. “It might appeal to a whole other element of the population who might not have been able to experience past missions the same way,” he says.

Watch NASA’s coverage of the Perseverance landing here.

Elsewhere on Mars, the InSight lander will be listening to the landing too (SN: 2/24/20). The lander’s seismometer may be able to feel vibrations when two tungsten weights that Perseverance carried to Mars for stability smack into the ground before the rover lands, geophysicist Benjamin Fernando of the University of Oxford and colleagues report in a paper posted December 3 to eartharxiv.org and submitted to JGR Planets.

“No one’s ever tried to do this before,” Fernando says.

The ground will move by at most 0.1 nanometers per second, Fernando and colleagues calculated. “It’s incredibly small,” he says. “But the seismometer is also incredibly sensitive.”

The team may be able to catch that tiny signal because they know exactly when and where the impact will happen. If the lander does pick up the signal, it will tell scientists something about how fast seismic waves travel through the ground, a clue to the details of Mars’ interior structure. And even if they don’t feel anything, that will put limits on the waves’ speed. “It still teaches us something,” Fernando says.

The InSight team hopes to also feel vibrations from Tianwen-1 when its rover touches down in May. “Detecting one would be great,” Fernando says. “Detecting two would be like, amazing.”

Source: Science News

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