On Monday, NASA scientists unveiled unique home videos of last week’s daring Mars rover landing, vividly showing supersonic parachute inflation over the red planet and a rocket-propelled hovercraft that is lowering the science lab on wheels to the surface.
The footage was captured on Thursday by a series of cameras mounted at various angles of the multi-stage spacecraft as it guided the rover called Perseverance through the thin Martian atmosphere to a soft landing in a huge basin called Jezero Crater.
Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA assistant administrator for science, described the footage as “closest to landing on Mars without putting on a pressure suit”.
The video montage was played for reporters listening to a webcast of news from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) near Los Angeles four days after the historic landing of the most advanced astrobiological probe ever sent to another world.
NASA also presented a short audio clip recorded by microphones on the rover upon arrival that contained the murmur of a light gust of wind – the first ever recorded from the sun on the fourth planet.
JPL imaging scientist Justin Maki said NASA’s InSight stationary landing craft, which arrived on Mars in 2018 to examine its deep interior, previously measured seismic signals on the planet that were “acoustically powered” and then “rendered as audio” were.
However, the mission’s deputy project manager, Matt Wallace, said he believes the Martian breeze is the first ambient sound recorded directly on the Martian surface and played back to humans.
The spacecraft’s microphones were unable to collect any useful audio as it descended to the crater floor. But they picked up a mechanical hum from the rover when it arrived. Wallace said he hopes to pick up other sounds, like the rover’s wheels grinding across the surface and the robotic arm drilling for samples of Martian rock.
“The stuff of our dreams”
But it was footage of the spacecraft’s dangerous, self-guided journey through the Martian sky to touchdown – an interval NASA has dubbed “the seven minutes of terror” – that caught the JPL team’s particular eye.
“These videos and these pictures are the stuff of our dreams,” Al Chen, head of the relegation and landing team, told reporters. JPL director Mike Watkins said the engineers spent much of the weekend looking at the footage.
The video, recorded in color at 75 frames per second, shows the action in fluid, lively motion from different angles. This is the first picture ever taken of a spaceship landing on another planet, Wallace said.
One of the most dramatic moments is the shot of the red and white parachute from a canon-like launcher into the sky above the rover as the spaceship crashes to the ground at almost twice the speed of sound.
The slide bounces up, unfolds, and inflates fully in less than two seconds with no evidence of entanglement within its 2 mile (3.2 km) leash, Chen said.
A downward facing camera shows the sloping heat shield and a sweeping view of the buttercotch-colored Martian terrain that seems to move back and forth as the spaceship sways under the parachute.
Seconds later, a camera pointing upwards recorded the rocket-propelled “Sky-Crane” vehicle, which had just been dropped from the parachute. The engines fire, but the propellant swells invisible to the human eye as the rover is lowered to a safe landing spot on a belt of ribbons.
A separate camera shows the lowering of the six-wheeled rover from the vantage point of the sky crane, looking down, while Persistence dangles from its harness directly above the surface and dust rises around it as it touches down. The sky crane then flies up and down from the landing site after cutting the cable harnesses.
A single still image of the rover, which was hung on the sky crane shortly before landing, was released by NASA on Friday amid fanfare as a forerunner of the video shown on Monday.
The only previously moving footage produced by a spaceship during a Mars landing was a comparatively crude video captured under the previous rover Curiosity during its descent to the surface of the planet in 2012. This stop-motion-like sequence was captured with 3.5 frames per frame second from a single angle showing the ground was gradually getting closer but did not include images of the parachute or sky crane maneuvers.
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