NASA has unveiled stunning videos of its Perseverance rover landing on Mars.
The videos cover the final minutes of last week’s hair-raising descent, up to the point where the rover’s wheels make contact with the ground.
The sequences show a whirl of dust and grit being kicked up as the vehicle is lowered by its rocket backpack to the floor of Jezero Crater.
Perseverance was sent to Mars festooned with cameras, seven of which were dedicated to recording the landing.
Their imagery represents vital feedback for engineers as they look to improve still further the technologies used to put probes on the surface of the Red planet.
All the cameras employed in the descent and landing were off-the-shelf, ruggedized sports cameras, with next-to-no modifications.
The cameras were positioned to capture key hardware events – from the release of the supersonic parachute, through the jettisoning of the entry capsule’s heatshield and flight of the backpack, or “sky crane”, all the way through to touchdown and the backpack’s disposal.
This corresponded to roughly the final four minutes of the rover’s seven-minute descent to the surface.
One of the three cameras looking up at the parachutes failed, but the other six cameras worked flawlessly. NASA had hoped also to record the sound of the descent with a microphone, but unfortunately this didn’t succeed.
However, the team has managed to get a mic operating on the ground so there is the possibility of hearing Perseverance go about its exploration duties in the coming weeks. Already, the muffled sound of the wind in Jezero Crater has been played back.
Videos have been made at Mars before, but these were low frame-rate affairs – more what you might call “stop motion” action. The Perseverance offering on the other hand is simply jaw-dropping in its clarity and detail.
At the weekend, Perseverance’s navigation mast, which had been stowed flat since leaving Earth last year, was raised into the vertical.
This allowed the main science cameras at the mast’s top, the Mastcam-Z system, to begin building a panorama of the surrounding terrain in Jezero and of the deck of the rover itself. The latter mosaic is wanted to look for any damage that might have been inflicted by flying stones at the time of landing.
Controllers will this week perform the critical task of transitioning Perseverance away from the software that got it safely down to the surface of Mars to one that enables the robot to rove and use equipment such as its robotic arm.
This is likely to take four Martian days, or Sols (a Martian day lasts 24 hours and 39 minutes). We might see a wheel wiggle and the first test drive of a few meters come the weekend.
A NASA satellite, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, has already identified and photographed the discarded hardware from landing.
Perseverance’s landing spot is in a 1.2km by 1.2km quadrangle that the science team has informally called Canyon de Chelly after the National Monument in Arizona.
ESA’s Schiaparelli mission did not behave as expected as it headed down to the surface of Mars on October 19.
According to telemetry data recovered from the probe during its descent, Schiaparelli’s parachute was jettisoned too early.
The rockets it was supposed to use to bring itself to a standstill just above the ground also appeared to fire for too short a time.
The ESA has not yet conceded that the lander crashed but the mood is not positive.
Experts will continue to analyze the data and they may also try to call out to Schiaparelli in the blind hope that it is actually sitting on the Red Planet intact.
In addition, the Americans will use one of their satellites at Mars to image the targeted landing zone to see if they can detect any hardware. Although, the chances are slim because the probe is small.
For the moment, all ESA has to work with is the relatively large volume of engineering data Schiaparelli managed to transmit back to the “mothership” that dropped it off at Mars – the Trace Gas Orbiter.
This shows that everything was fine as the probe entered the atmosphere.
Schiaparelli’s heatshield appeared to do the job of slowing the craft, and the parachute opened as expected to further decelerate the robot.
But it is at the end of the parachute phase that the data indicates unusual behavior.
The European Space Agency’s probe Schiaparelli was supposed to land on Mars on October 19.
The ExoMars mission was hoping to land the module at 3:48PM BST, but no signal from it has been received so far.
The Schiaparelli lander is named after the 19th century Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli. He was born on March, 14, 1835, 181 years to the very day before the launch of the mission that bears his name.
A radio transmission that should have allowed scientists to follow the probe to the surface was not received.
Image source ESA
Controllers hope that satellites in orbit at Mars will have detected it and will shortly be able to confirm that the probe got down safely.
Landing on Mars is always a daunting prospect.
It is a high-speed approach that has to be got just right or the spacecraft runs the risk of crashing into the ground.
Schiaparelli had a heatshield, a parachute and rocket thrusters to try to get itself to the surface intact.
The ESA will not be rushed to judgement on whether this mission has been a success or a failure.
It will wait on the reports of the satellites. Both European and American orbiters were tasked with tracking the event.
If Schiaparelli is later confirmed as down and safe, it will spend the next few days making measurements of the Martian environment and current weather conditions – at least until its batteries run out.
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