Why have we never used microphones on Mars? That’s a question you may not have thought about before, but it’s just been revealed that a new mission will return the first sounds from the surface of the Red Planet, or indeed any planet other than Earth.
In 2020, NASA will send a new rover to Mars, which is currently just called the 2020 Mars rover in lieu of a formal name yet. Its design is identical to its predecessor Curiosity, which is currently operating on the surface of Mars. But where they will differ is in the instruments they carry.
This new rover, which will land in February 2021, will have a greater focus on searching for past life. It will also collect samples and leave them on Mars, which could be collected by a mission in the future.
Most excitingly, though, it will also have a microphone. This is thanks to the work of The Planetary Society, a space advocacy group in the US that has campaigned for a microphone to be sent to Mars for the last two decades.
“Microphones will finally enable us to add a second human sense to all the amazing visual imagery we have seen from Mars, adding a visceral reality to a distant world,” Bruce Betts, Director of Science and Technology for The Planetary Society, said in a blog post.
NASA's new Mars rover has the same overall design as Curiosity. NASA/JPL-Caltech
Microphones have actually been sent to Mars before, though, thanks to the work of The Planetary Society; it’s just that they haven’t worked. The first was sent on the Mars Polar lander, which launched in 1998 but sadly crashed on the surface in 1999 before it could begin its mission. A later mission, the Phoenix lander in 2008, also included a microphone, but concerns over the lander’s electronics meant it was never switched on.
On this new rover, there will actually be two microphones. The first will record the sounds during entry, descent, and landing (EDL), the so-called “seven minutes of terror” experienced by Curiosity as the rover passes through the atmosphere and then lands on the ground with the assistance of a rocket-propelled crane system.
The second, and perhaps more exciting, microphone will be on the rover itself. It will take the form of a small tube on the SuperCam science instrument, itself used to analyze samples on Mars. According to Betts, the microphone should be able to detect everything from “blowing winds to the crunch of the wheels rolling across the surface.”
With this mission we will have replicated two of the five human senses on Mars. Who knows, maybe the next rover will come packed with a Smell-O-Scope.