It was “seven minutes of terror” that had a big payoff: NASA’s Mars Perseverance safely landed on the surface of the red planet last Thursday. And, for the first time, the edge-of-your-seat descent was captured by high-definition video cameras, which NASA released on Monday.
“Now we finally have a front-row view to what we call ‘the seven minutes of terror’ while landing on Mars,” Michael Watkins, director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California, which manages the mission for the agency, said in a press release.
Getting spacecraft to Mars is no easy feat. About half of missions to the red planet have ended in failure. And getting a rover safely on the surface is even more challenging. In the past, NASA used airbags that protected the rover as it bounced safely to its final resting spot.
But in 2012, its Curiosity rover used an innovative — and complicated — landing procedure that involved using a rocket-powered crane to gently lower the rover to the surface. It was a success, and this method was once again used with Perseverance.
WATCH | NASA release video of different perspectives of Mars Perseverance landing:
“I think you will feel like you are getting a glimpse as to what it would be like to land in Jezero Crater with Perseverance,” Matt Wallace, Perseverance deputy project manager at JPL, said during NASA’s press conference ahead of the video release on Monday.
And the cameras do indeed provide an incredible glimpse into the series of all the things that needed to happen with incredible precision to deliver Perseverance to the surface.
The video picks up after the rover entered the thin Martian atmosphere at a breakneck speed of 19,000 km/h after which its supersonic parachute deployed, further slowing it to 320 km/h.
The heat shield is then released and is seen falling to the surface as the rover’s eight descent-stage rockets took over, reducing the speed to about 2.6 km/h. That’s when the tricky “skycrane” maneouvre initiated.
The dusty descent
Roughly 12 seconds before touchdown, the descent stage lowered the rover from a set of 6.4-metre long cables. Dust is seen being kicked up from the surface as the rover unfurled its legs and wheels into landing position. Once the rover sensed that it had touched the ground, the cables were quickly cut with the descent stage flying off safely away from the rover.
All of this had to go off without a hitch. And fortunately, it did, with video to prove it.
Nominal = millions of things went right and we managed to get a rover off Earth, into space, travel millions of miles, arrive at Mars, slow down through a transformers like landing, and then communicate with orbiters and a deep space network
The rover collected 23,000 images of the descent and 30 gigabytes of information with cameras looking both upward as the descent stage lowered Perseverance to the ground and downward as dust was kicked up by the rockets.
“I can and have watched those videos for hours,” Al Chen, Perseverance entry, descent, and landing (EDL) lead at JPL, said at the press conference. “I keep seeing new stuff every time.”
The microphone didn’t pick up the descent due to what engineers believe may have been a communication error, though it is now working on the surface and has sent back audio.
LISTEN | Sounds from the Mars Perseverance Rover (with rover noise filtered out):
Along with the video, NASA also released several new images.
“I had no idea that it would be this amazing,” said Justin Maki, Perseverance imaging scientist and instrument operations team chief. “When I saw these images come down I have to say, I was truly amazed. I know it’s been a tough year for everybody, and we’re hoping these images will brighten peoples’ day.”
And there are even “Easter eggs” hidden on Perseverance.
Did you all find the easter egg on the deck? The family car sticker with Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, Curiosity, Perseverance and Ingenuity! <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/CountdownToMars?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#CountdownToMars</a> <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/Mars2020?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#Mars2020</a> <a href=”https://t.co/C0GzJPxnPr”>pic.twitter.com/C0GzJPxnPr</a>
The new 20 megapixel colour cameras are higher-resolution than any of those before it, with wide angle lenses that are used as the rover drives.
“This is it. This is Mars. It really is the surface of an alien world.”
Now, as more of the rover comes online, the scientists and engineers said more — and better — is yet to come.
Perseverance will also begin to find a suitable location where it will deploy Ingenuity, a helicopter that will be a test for future missions to the red planet.
“We’re just beginning to do amazing things on the surface of Mars,” said Dave Gruel, Perseverance EDL camera lead.
For raw images released by NASA’s Perseverance rover, you can visit their multimedia site.