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Last week, on Feb. 18, 2021, NASA landed Perseverance on Mars, the most sophisticated rover ever sent to the Red Planet.
The next day, the agency released a handful of amazing images, including one taken from the rocket-powered sky crane that was hovering over the ground as it lowered the rover to the surface via cables. The crane has downward-facing cameras that caught the incredible shot.
That camera didn't just take that one image. It took video. Yeah, prepare yourself. Make this full screen and highest resolution, because *wow.*
WHOA. Holy Ares.
So what are you seeing here?
Well, you're seeing the very first video ever sent back from Mars showing the descent and landing of a rover on the surface!
The first footage in the video from the spacecraft comes from a camera looking upward from the backshell, the cone-shaped back of the spacecraft where the parachute attaches. The 70-kilogram parachute is deployed by blasting it out the back by a mortar, literally an explosive charge that sends it flying away. The parachute falls back about 50 meters and inflates, taking only 0.7 seconds to unfurl.
Mind you, the rover assembly was falling at 1,500 kilometers per hour toward the ground when the parachute unfurled! It's designed to slow the assembly from that supersonic speed to just about 300 km/hr.
After that, there's footage from the heat shield ejection once its job was done. This is the bottom of the descent package, the part that protected the rover from the heat of entry into the atmosphere, as it plunged downward initially at 20,000 km/hr. The heat shield was ejected and falls freely where it impacts the ground (which we don't see here, but it's in an image below).
After that you can see the surface approaching, taken by a downward-looking cameras on the rover. Perseverance landed in Jezero crater, a 45-kilometer wide impact crater in the northern hemisphere of Mars. It was chosen because it was clearly once a lake filled with water, and there's a huge sediment delta in the northwest of the crater, where a river dumped silt as it flowed into the crater billions of years ago.
That delta can be seen for a few moments as the rover descends. You can also see craters, hills, rippling sand dunes, then boulders, then smaller rocks...
... then plumes of dust twisting and flowing violently as the sky crane's rockets ignite, slowing the descent. The view splits, showing that descent on the right, while at the upper left you see footage from the upward-looking camera that shows the sky crane itself, and the downward-looking camera from the crane of the rover. The rover swayed a bit as it hung suspended under the crane, which was expected.
Finally when the rover touches down, it sent a signal to the crane letting it know the wheels had made contact. The cables were then severed and the rocket crane flies away, landing safely some distance from the rover.
Unfortunately the microphone designed to take audio of descent didn't work, but once the rover was down engineers were able to get a recording of wind blowing on Mars:
Wow... That is the actual wind of Mars blowing past the rover! The microphones will record sounds like this, including when a powerful laser will zap rocks to determine their chemical makeup.
But everything else worked very well. NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter passed over the landing site and was able to spot all the hardware on the surface:
Each inset square is about 200 meters across, to give you a sense of scale. Given the location of the heat shield, the rover was moving right to left as it descended. The wind blew the parachute farther downrange, and you can see where the sky crane (labeled "descent stage") crashed into the surface as well — if you look carefully you can see a dark plume of surface material to the upper left displaced when the crane slammed into the ground.
Once down, the rover took images of its deck from a camera on its mast (the "head" of the rover). In this shot you can see camera calibration targets that lets engineers adjust the camera setting sot get the best images, as well as one set of severed cables that attached the rover to the sky crane. Also, center right, there's the black upward-looking camera that took some of the dramatic footage in the video.
This angle was taken by one of the navigation cameras and shows instruments on the rover, including one that will investigate the chemistry of Martian rocks, and another that will collect samples from the surface so that a later mission can pick them up and send them to Earth.
Finding a safe landing spot wasn't easy; the rover used a sophisticated software package that matched what the cameras saw with images of the crater floor stored on board so that it could find a flat area in which to land. That all worked perfectly and the rover landed in a wonderful spot, close to the river delta where it can perform its main mission: look for signs of ancient life on Mars.
The raw images from all the cameras can be accessed by the public too, so you can see them as they come in from Mars.
What an incredible achievement. Just phenomenal. The rover has a mass of well over a thousand kilos (it weighs about 850 pounds on the surface of Mars) so getting it down to the surface is an astonishingly difficult task. But the folks at NASA and JPL make it look easy.
Their job continues as they work on checking out all the hardware, but soon the rover will rove, and we'll see what there is to see in Jezero crater. Will Perseverance find signs of life on Mars from eons ago? We'll soon see.