All eyes are on Mars, and so are all the ears. When NASA’s Perseverance rover hits Red Planet on February 18, the landing will be recorded with sight, sound, and perhaps even touch.
The rover will end a month of arrivals to Mars from space agencies around the world (SN: 30/07/20). Perseverance joins Hope, the first interplanetary mission in the United Arab Emirates, which successfully entered Mars orbit on February 9; and Tianwen-1, China’s first Mars mission, which arrived on February 10 and will deploy a rover to the Martian surface in May.
NASA will broadcast the Perseverance landing on YouTube starting at 2:15 p.m. EST. The actual moment of the touchdown is expected at approximately 15:55. EST. Perseverance is designed to explore an ancient delta of the river called Jezero Crater, looking for signs of ancient life and collecting stones for a future mission to return to Earth (SN: 28/07/20).
The rover will use the landing system initiated by its predecessor, Curiosity, which has been exploring Mars since 2012 (SN: 8/6/12). But in a first for Mars touchdowns, this rover will record its own landing with dedicated cameras and a microphone.
As the boat carrying Perseverance moves through the thin Martian atmosphere, three cameras will look at the parachute slowing it down at supersonic speeds. When a rocket-powered “sky crane” platform lowers the rover to the ground, a fourth camera on the platform will record the rover’s descent. Another rover camera will look back at the platform and a sixth camera will look at the ground.
JPL-Caltech / NASA
JPL-Caltech / NASA
“The goal is to watch the video and the action of rising from the atmosphere to the surface,” says engineer David Gruel of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, who was the engineering leader for that six-camera system. EDL-Cam. Expect all team engineers to have a picture of the rover hanging below the descent phase as a computer desktop background within six months.
Because the signals will take more than 11 minutes to travel between Earth and Mars, the cameras will not transmit the landing film in real time. And after Perseverance lands, engineers will focus on making sure the rover is healthy and able to collect scientific data, so landing videos won’t be among the first data sent back. Gruel hopes to be able to share what the rover saw four days after landing, on February 22nd.
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Perseverance will also carry microphones to record the first audio of a landing on Mars. Unlike landing cameras, the microphones will continue to operate after the touchdown, hoping they will help the team of engineers monitor the rover’s health. Engines sound different when they are clogged with dust, for example, Gruel says. The team will hear the sound of the rover’s wheels creaking across the Martian surface and perhaps the sound of the wind.
“Will we hear a dust demon? How can a dust demon sound? Could we hear rocks rolling down a hill? Gruel asks, "You never know where we might stumble."
The sound will add a way to share Mars with people who have trouble seeing, Gruel points out. “It may attract another element of the population that may not have been able to experience past missions in the same way,” he says.
See NASA live coverage on the Perseverance landing here from 2:15 p.m. EST.
Elsewhere on Mars, the InSight lander will also hear the landing (SN: 24/02/20). The Lander seismometer may be able to feel vibrations when two weights of tungsten that Perseverance took to Mars to reach stability fall to the ground before rover land, Oxford University geophysicist Benjamin Fernando and colleagues report in an article published on December 3 at eartharxiv.org and sent to JGR Planets.
“No one has ever tried to do that before,” Fernando says.
Fernando and his colleagues calculated that the ground would move a maximum of 0.1 nanometers per second. “It’s incredibly small,” he says. "But the seismometer is also incredibly sensitive."
The team may be able to pick up that little signal because they know exactly when and where the impact is going to happen. If the terrifier catches the signal, it will tell scientists something about how fast seismic waves travel across the ground, a clue to the details of Mars' inner structure. And even if they don’t feel anything, that will put limits on the speed of the waves. “He still teaches us something,” Fernando says.
The InSight team also hopes to feel Tianwen-1 vibrations when their rover hits in May. “Detecting one would be great,” Fernando says. "Detecting two would be amazing."