On February 18, NASA’s Perseverance rover captured this video as a jetpack lowered it to the surface of the Red Planet. “Every time I see it, it gives me goosebumps,” said engineer David Gruel of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., at a February 22 news conference.
As the rover and its landing gear enter the Martian atmosphere, the movie starts with the rover’s parachute opening above it. Seconds later, the heat shield falling towards the ground is seen by a camera on the underside of the rover. If you look closely, you can see one of the springs that pulled the heat shield off the rover fell loose, NASA engineer Allen Chen said, the entrance, descent and landing of the rover.
There is no danger to the spacecraft here, but without the images, he said, it’s something that we didn’t expect and wouldn’t have seen. The rover filmed the ground, glimpses of a river delta, craters, ripples and broken terrain getting closer and closer. Cameras on the rover’s top and bottom showed clouds of dust billowing as the jetpack of the rover, the sky crane, lowered it on three cables down to the earth. On the sky crane, a camera showed the rover slightly swinging as it descended. The sky crane eventually disconnected the wires and flew away, leaving Perseverance to start its search.
“Seeing the film for the first time is hard to express how emotional it was and how exciting it was for everyone,” said Deputy Project Manager Matt Wallace. People were overjoyed, giddy, every time we got something. They were like children in a candy shop. The film looks so much like NASA’s previously released animations of the sky crane landing technique that it almost doesn’t look genuine, says imaging scientist Justin Maki. “It’s real, I can testify,” he says. “It’s gorgeous and it’s real.”
For the first time, the rover even captured audio from the surface of the Red Planet, including a Martian wind gust. Perseverance landed about two kilometers from what looks like an ancient river delta feeding into the crater in an ancient lakebed called Jezero crater. The primary mission of the rover is to scan for signs of past life and cache rock samples to return to Earth for a future mission. On a flat expanse, the first pictures Perseverance sent back from Mars revealed its wheels.
The field is strewn with rocks shot through with holes, said Katie Stack Morgan, deputy project scientist, in a news conference on February 19. “These holes might mean different things depending on the origins of the rocks,” she said. As lava cooled, the research team assumes the holes may be from gases escaping volcanic rock, or from fluid flowing through and dissolving the rock. “For the team, both would be equally exciting.”