Panoramic image of Mars captured by Perseverance on February 20, 2021.
Never before, in all of our millions of years, have humans directly watched a spaceship land on another planet. Until now.
On Monday, NASA released a video (embedded below) that included various viewpoints of the Martian Persistence's descent onto the red planet's surface last week. A camera on the rear hull captured a view of the failing parachute, and cameras on the descent step and the rover itself captured the final seconds of landing.
"I can and have watched these videos for hours," said NASA's Al Chen, who was responsible for the boarding, descent, and landing for Perseverance. "I find new things every time. I invite you to it too."
The first part of the video shows the tightly packed parachute triggered by a mortar shot and being shot down at a speed of 100 miles per hour. In a second, it reaches full expansion at 150 feet above the spaceship. It then inflates in 0.7 seconds. There is no evidence of the lines becoming tangled, a minor miracle with 2 miles of lines in the parachute system. It is the first time that scientists have closely observed a parachute in the thin Martian atmosphere. "We will study this video for many, many years," Chen said during a press conference.
Mars Perseverance Lander.
Then, further down in the atmosphere, the view changes to show the heat shield falling off the rover. White spots appear, probably frost. One of the eight springs that connect the heat shield to the rover is loose. The heat shield disappears and gently falls to the surface.
The final views are from a camera on the descent step looking down at the rover and from the rover looking up at the descent step. Perhaps most notable is this upward view, which shows the sky crane maneuver where the descent stage brings the rover almost to the surface and then quickly moves away. There is no plume of exhaust from the engines during the descent phase – this is because hydrazine fuel creates a clear cloud of nitrogen and hydrogen.
Recording this visceral footage wasn't business critical, but it was a bonus. The space agency used rugged, off-the-shelf hardware to capture these images. In total, about 30 GB of data was collected during the descent, a total of 23,000 images. After NASA has this information, it will be used to sharpen knowledge of future entry, descent and landing technologies on Mars and other worlds in the solar system.
One landing issue that is sharply highlighted in the new footage is the dust kicked up by the descent stage as it approaches the Martian surface and falls off the lander. It completely envelops endurance in a thick cloud. This will be a major issue as NASA is considering landing larger spaceships and eventually human missions on the red planet.
Descent into a rocket-induced dust and sand storm. And look at the big flying stone in the last picture! #PerseveranceRover pic.twitter.com/7MEnqRhLj3
– Dr. Phil Metzger (@DrPhiltill) February 22, 2021
"As far as I know, there are no landing pads or barges on Mars," said Chen. "This is a big challenge for us in the future, with increasingly heavy vehicles and ever larger engines. That is why collecting this information is so important."
The visual data helps scientists and engineers calibrate their models for dust, as it showed accurate information about the thrust of the engines and how they were near the Martian surface.
More than just visual tidbits were released during the Perseverance press conference on Monday. For the first time, a rover recorded audio and broadcast it back to Earth to record what sounded like a gust of wind. "Who will compose the first piece of music with a real Mars sound?" asked Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's head of science. Who in fact.