On Feb. 18th, 2021, the Perseverance rover landed on Mars carrying the most advanced scientific instruments ever sent to another planet. It also carried experiments designed to push the envelope of exploration and help pave the way for crewed missions to Mars. This includes theIngenuity Mars Helicopter, an experimental flight system designed to see if aerial systems can operate in the Martian atmosphere.
After making its inaugural flight on April 19th, Ingenuity has taken to the air twice more and set many records in the process. During its most recent test flight (which took place on the morning of April 25th), the helicopter flew farther and faster than ever before. All told, the helicopter covered a distance of 50 meters (164 feet) in 80 seconds, reaching a top speed of 2 m/s (6.6 feet per second) or 7.2 km/hour (4.5 mph).
On February 18th, 2021, the Perseverance rover landed in the Jezero crater on Mars. Shortly thereafter, it powered up some of the scientific instruments it will use to conduct science operations and search for potential evidence of past life. One such instrument is the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA), which turned on for 30 minutes and issued the rover’s first weather report from Mars.
The forecast? Bitter Cold! Basically, the temperature was lower than what you’d expect on a harsh and windy winter’s night here on Earth! According to the data the rover sent back, which was received by mission controllers at 05:25 P.M. EST (08:25 P.M. PST), the local temperature around the Octavia E. Bulter landing in the Jezero crater was -20 °C (- 4 °F) when MEDA started recording, then dropped to -25.6 °C (-14 °F) within 30 minutes.
On April 3rd, the Mars Ingenuity helicopter was removed from its carbon-fiber shield on the Perseverance rover’s belly. On Sunday, April 11th, it will make its first attempt at a powered, controlled flight, becoming the first aircraft to operate on another planet. In the meantime, Ingenuity accomplished another major milestone as it survived its first full night on the Martian surface.
Perseverance has been busy lately. After testing its systems out, taking the first sound recording ever on the Red Planet, and dropping off its helicopter sidekick, now it has the opportunity to work on its primary mission: stare at some rocks. And occasionally zap them with a laser.
Roughly 4 billion years ago, Mars looked a lot different than it does today. For starters, its atmosphere was thicker and warmer, and liquid water flowed across its surface. This included rivers, standing lakes, and even a deep ocean that covered much of the northern hemisphere. Evidence of this warm, watery past has been preserved all over the planet in the form of lakebeds, river valleys, and river deltas.
For some time, scientists have been trying to answer a simple question: where did all that water go? Did it escape into space after Mars lost its atmosphere, or retreat somewhere? According to new research from Caltech and the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), between 30% and 90% of Mars’ water went underground. These findings contradict the widely-accepted theory that Mars lost its water to space over the course of eons.
Perseverance has already made its mark on scientific history by taking the first audio recording ever on Mars. But the instrument with the microphone, known as the SuperCam, wasn’t done there. It has plenty of other science to do, and recently it started running through some more preliminary tests. One of those tests happened to involve blasting a rock with a laser – while taking an audio recording of it.
In absence of (yet) being able to step foot on Mars, we have robotic vicarious experiences through our rovers including Perseverance which landed this past February 18th. In addition to photos we’ve collected from the surface over the decades, our ever-improving data connection to Mars made it possible to see video from Perseverance’s landing. That dramatic unfurl of the parachute and dust spray of the landing thrusters – astonishing! I’m not ashamed to admit I cried. Through Perseverance we’re also experiencing Mars exploration with another sense – SOUND! Sound from another planet!! Using Perseverance’s Entry, Descent, and Landing Microphone (EDL Mic) we recently recorded audio of Perseverance’s wheels rolling across the Martian regolith (broken rocks and dust or “soil”). The audio segment below is an edited portion of sound highlights from a longer 16 minute raw audio file.
On March 4th, 2021, the Perseverance rover began driving from its landing site on Mars. During this drive, the rover covered 6.5 meters (21.3 feet) and conducted some basic maneuvers and instrument tests. In keeping with a NASA tradition where mission controllers give unofficial nicknames to various geological features, the team also consecrated the landing site by naming it after a famous science fiction author.
Henceforth, the site where Perseverance landed will be known as the “Octavia E. Butler Landing,” in honor of the groundbreaking science fiction author who passed away in 2006 (she was 59 years old). Butler is renowned for being the first African-American woman to win both the Hugo and Nebula Award and was the first science fiction author honored with a MacArthur Fellowship (in 1995).