NASA’s Perseverance rover is practically bristling with cameras. And those cameras were busy during the rover’s breathtaking descent to the Martian surface. Now NASA has released images and videos of the blessed event.
Perseverance’s arrival and safe landing at Mars is an amazing accomplishment for NASA, and for all of us. Each of the previous rover landings was amazing, too, but something feels different about Perseverance. Each mission to Mars has advanced our understanding, but Perseverance has a chance to actually find fossil evidence of ancient life.
If it does find that evidence, it’ll be one of those events that changes humanity’s understanding of our place in nature. You can rank it up there with Copernicus’ model of the Earth orbiting the Sun or with Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.
With all of that in the balance, it makes NASA’s latest video that much more compelling.
If you weren’t aware, Perseverance landed safely on Mars last Thursday. The rover is getting its bearings and testing its systems right now, and that phase of the mission will take weeks. In the meantime, NASA has put together this video of the landing. This is “chills running up the spine” stuff.
The video starts when Perseverance is about 11 km (7 mi) above the surface of Mars, with Jezero Crater below. At first, upwards-facing cameras capture the popping of the parachute. Then, after the heat shield is jettisoned, the rover’s cameras bring the ground into view. The radar also begins to read the surface in preparation for a safe landing.
“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.”
It’s difficult to make out features on Mars’ surface as they come into view. A small crater comes into the camera’s view at about 1 km altitude, which is likely one of the small craters in the static image of Perseverance’s landing spot and potential traverse below. Two small craters flank the red teardrop landing indicator, and the video image seems to match the one on the left in the image below.
Perseverance’s path along the floor of Jezero Crater is designed for maximum scientific return. Once the rover is ready to begin its surface operations, it’ll slowly work its way along the crater floor, checking out targets of interest as it goes. Jezero Crater is an ancient lake bed, and its sediments and shorelines are ideal places to look for evidence of ancient life.
NASA also gave us some remarkable audio. You can hear the rover itself, as well as a breeze that arises and blows through Jezero Crater.
There’ll be many discoveries and astonishing moments during Perseverance’s mission. Its primary mission will span one year, but the rover will last much longer than that, most likely. The rover will not only examine scientific targets; it’ll collect samples for eventual return to Earth and also test out a small helicopter named Ingenuity.
Will the rover find solid evidence of ancient life? Who knows? But if it does, that discovery is likely to be incremental, like much other science. It took years to confirm that ancient Mars was a wet warm place, and it’ll likely take years before science can confirm any ancient Martian life.
That’s what makes moments like the Perseverance landing so important. It’s a single, discrete event that earns recognition and gives us all a chance to celebrate NASA and all their hard work. It’s also an opportunity to celebrate humanity and our persistence and what great things dedicated groups of humans can accomplish.
So if you have a friend or spouse or someone else who gently mocks you for getting emotional about another spacecraft landing, remind them of the larger picture.
“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 in a press release. “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.”
In the end, it’s all about humanity and nature and humanity finding its place in nature. If people don’t feel the emotional tug from that, then you might need some new friends.
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