September 30, 2023

What is it like to land on Mars?

Now you can watch as if you were there in captivating, high-definition clarity.

On Monday, NASA released a short video captured by the agency’s spacecraft Perseverance as it fell through the Martian atmosphere on Thursday last week, ending with the rover’s successful arrival on the Martian surface. It is the first video of its kind to be sent back from the planet to earth.

“It gives me goosebumps every time I see it,” said David Gruel, an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who worked on the camera system that was designed to capture the landing from different angles.

The video will help engineers evaluate the spacecraft landing for future missions, but it also has a broader purpose.

“Much of it should take you with you on our journey, our landing to Mars and of course on our surface mission,” said Michael M. Watkins, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which Perseverance set up and is now operating the mission.

Dr. Watkins, speaking at a press conference Monday, showed a picture captured by NASA’s Mariner 4 in 1965, which was first sent back to Earth during the first successful flyby of a Mars spacecraft.

“That was hand-colored by the engineers from a code,” he said. “It’s like a color by numbers.”

Nowadays, miniature camera systems in cell phones can record high definition video. Matt Wallace, an assistant project manager for the mission, said he had the idea of ​​putting cameras all over the rover and its landing system about 11 years ago when his daughter buckled up a small video camera and did a backflip.

“For a moment I felt like I was taking a look at what it would be like to do a backflip,” he said.

He thought maybe something similar could make people on Earth feel like they were landing on Mars.

Mr Gruel said the most important consideration was “not to do any harm” that could endanger the boarding, descent and landing portion of the mission or the EDL, which required the rover to slow from more than 12,000 mph to a seven minutes later safe stop on the surface.

If the cameras – slightly modified ones that were bought commercially – worked, that would be great. If not, it would not be considered a loss to the mission’s scientific objectives.

“If we could only get a picture or information back during the EDL,” said Gruel, “we shouldn’t get upset and excited.”

The cameras worked.

Three cameras were on top of the entrance pod, pointing up. One failed, but two picked up the parachute, which shot up at a speed of 100 mph and then opened to slow a spaceship that crashed to the ground at 1,000 mph.

“You can really get a feel for how violent parachute deployment and inflation are,” said Allen Chen, the EDL system engineer.

There was also one camera on the descent step – the rocket-propelled jetpack that lowered the Perseverance rover to the ground – and two on the rover. One was up facing the descent step, the other looking down at the Martian landscape as the rover neared the ground and settled in a 30 mile wide crater called Jezero.

Except for a few minor glitches, the landing system seemed to be working properly.

The same landing system successfully brought an earlier rover, Curiosity, to Mars, but there were no cameras to record the event. This was the first time engineers like Mr. Chen saw how the system they had worked with for years actually worked.

The one part of Mr. Gruel’s system that didn’t work at all was a microphone that was supposed to record the sounds when persistence fell through the atmosphere. The problem appears to have been a communication bug, not a problem with a microphone itself, and Mr. Gruel is instead playing wind noise at about 10 mph that the rover recorded after it landed.

“I invite you to sit back and listen to what it sounds like to be on Mars,” he said.

Once Perseverance’s systems are reviewed, it will begin its mission to explore layers of ancient river sediments that could contain chemical signs of ancient microbial life on Mars if life were ever to emerge. It will also make an experimental helicopter called the Ingenuity that will attempt to fly in the fading air of Mars.

Images captured by higher resolution cameras of the Martian surface have also been sent to Earth and are already food for discussion. So far, scientists have described what they see in very general terms – light rocks, dark rocks, holey rocks that appear to be full of holes.

“One of the possibilities for these holes is that they are called vesicles, which are the result of gas escaping from a volcanic rock,” said Kenneth Williford, the project assistant scientist. “We don’t currently call them vesicles because it is important that we remain open to different possible interpretations.”

It took the videos a while to find their way to Earth. There is no high speed internet connection between Earth and Mars. Instead, the data had to be forwarded via orbiting spacecraft. The speed at which the data is being transferred can seem icy, especially if the file is a stunning high-resolution video like the one captured by Perseverance.

None of the spaceships previously sent to Mars had cameras that could take pictures at video rates. Instead, they took multiple photos through color filters, which could then be put together to form a color photo. And while sequences of black and white images of Mars were previously inserted into video clips, Perseverance’s films are videos in the traditional sense of the word.

In fact, some have wondered how NASA should make it clear which videos are animations put together by artists and which are broadcast from Mars.

“I think we should label them in the future,” said Mr. Chen. “Now that we have this type of video, we should be clear about what is real.”