NASA has released the first-ever incredible footage of a rover landing on the surface of Mars. Perseverance touched down on the Red Planet on February 18 and the footage capturing this major milestone reveals the final minutes of its entry, descent, and landing, known as EDL. The rover is also the first to ever record the true sound of Mars using a microphone, which you can listen to below.
The EDL is often referred to as the "7 minutes of terror," which is roughly the time it takes the rover between entering the atmosphere and landing. All the maneuvers are done automatically with no input from mission control. Mars is currently about 11 light-minutes away – 11 minutes being the time it takes for radio signals to reach Earth from Mars – so in those critical moments, we can’t wait for decisions taken on Earth.
The spectacle starts about halfway through the descent when 230 seconds after entering the atmosphere, about 11 kilometers (7 miles) above the surface, the spacecraft deploys its parachute, slowing down the spacecraft to subsonic speed. A subsequent highlight is the dropping of the heat shield, which protected Perseverance as it cut through the Martian atmosphere.
The absolute highlight is the final 50 seconds, as the probe can see Jezero Crater where it's going to land. Shortly after, the sky crane activates its rocket propulsion allowing it to hover in place as it lowers the rover to the surface with cables that are cut off as Perseverance touches the ground at a safe 2.6 kilometers (1.61 miles) per hour.
“Now we finally have a front-row view to what we call ‘the seven minutes of terror’ while landing on Mars,” said Michael Watkins, director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, which manages the mission for the agency. “From the explosive opening of the parachute to the landing rockets’ plume sending dust and debris flying at touchdown, it’s absolutely awe-inspiring.”
The footage is extraordinary in its own right but it is enhanced by the presence of Perseverance's microphones, which have captured the first-ever true audio recording collected from the Red Planet. The mics did not manage to get audio from the actual descent but did survive the EDL, capturing the sounds from Jezero Crater on February 20. You can hear the whistle of the Martian breeze and the mechanical sounds of the rover as it trundles about the crater.
It really drives home the fact that Mars is a very real whole planet out there, and humanity has been able to populate it with scientific instruments.
“We put the EDL camera system onto the spacecraft not only for the opportunity to gain a better understanding of our spacecraft’s performance during entry, descent, and landing, but also because we wanted to take the public along for the ride of a lifetime – landing on the surface of Mars,” said Dave Gruel, lead engineer for Mars 2020 Perseverance’s EDL camera and microphone subsystem at JPL. “We know the public is fascinated with Mars exploration, so we added the EDL Cam microphone to the vehicle because we hoped it could enhance the experience, especially for visually-impaired space fans, and engage and inspire people around the world.”
Over the next couple of days, NASA will release a high-res image of Jezero Crater, Perseverance's new home. This will provide the best look yet at where the rover is going to hunt for signs of past microbial life.
"For those who wonder how you land on Mars – or why it is so difficult – or how cool it would be to do so – you need look no further,” said acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk. “Perseverance is just getting started, and already has provided some of the most iconic visuals in space exploration history. It reinforces the remarkable level of engineering and precision that is required to build and fly a vehicle to the Red Planet.”
Correction: An earlier version of the article stated it was the first recording of true audio from another planet. It should have read the first recording from the Red Planet.