After a seven-month, 300 million mile journey to the Red Planet, NASA’s Perseverance rover has sent back the first high-definition color pictures of Mars, including a selfie.
On Friday, NASA released a photo of the rover in mid-descent as it was suspended under the sky crane moments before it touched down on the Martian surface.
“This is something that we’ve never seen before. It was stunning. The team was awestruck. Just a feeling of victory that we were able to capture these,” said Aaron Stehura, one of the leads on the entry, landing and descent team.
Two more images taken with a 20-megapixel camera show a wide shot of the landscape and a close-up of the rover’s front right wheel with rocks nearby. These are the first color images from the surface of Mars.
“Both images the team just went crazy for,” said Pauline Hwang, assistant strategic mission manager. “The science team immediately started looking at all those rocks and zooming in and going ‘what is that?”
One of the questions we’ll first as is whether these rocks represent a volcanic or sedimentary origin. Both would be equally exciting to the team.”
Perseverance’s primary mission is to search for microbial signs of life and its landing spot in Jezero Crater was hand-picked for that goal. It’s an ancient river delta that is marked by steep cliffs, sand dunes and large boulders.
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Amazingly, Perseverance gently touched down in a safe, flat spot with only 1 degree of tilt.
“The back of the rover is actually looking toward the delta area and the front is actually looking downward,” Hwang explained.
“By the edge of the wheel is a rock and one of first things we noticed was that it has a lot of holes in it.There are a number of geological processes that can make holes in a rock like that,” Perseverance Deputy Project scientist Katie Stack Morgan said. “One of the questions we’ll first ask is whether these rocks represent a volcanic or sedimentary origin. Both would be equally exciting to the team.”
In spite of pulling off a picture-perfect landing, there’s no downtime for the persevering rover.
The team is putting Perseverance through its paces performing hardware check-outs to make sure all the systems are functioning.
In 10 days or less Perseverance could be ready for its first short drive to scope out the neighborhood.
So, what’s next for Perseverance?
The rover is decked out with 23 cameras and on Saturday the team is planning to do a full Martian photo shoot.
“We’re gonna do a panorama of the rover and we’re also going to do a full panorama of our landscape around us,” Hwang said.
They anticipate receiving those images by Monday.
Previous Mars missions have taken still photographs of descent but no landing had ever been filmed.
Six cameras were rolling high-definition video footage of the spacecraft during entry, landing and descent also known as the “7 minutes of terror” because pulling it off is a major challenge.
If they were successful it will be the first video footage of a spacecraft landing on another planet.
NASA expects to record about 250,00 images at frame rates ranging from 12 to 75 images per second similar to cell phone footage.
The landing team is hopeful they will begin to see some video on Monday as well.
Perseverance is also equipped with two microphones to capture sound on the Red Planet for the first time. The team is hoping to get indication this weekend that they did get audio.
Next two months
Perseverance did not travel solo to Mars. A helicopter called Ingenuity hitched a ride tucked under the belly of the rover. Ingenuity will attempt powered flight for the first time on another planet.
The team says the earliest they could begin helicopter flights would be approximately two months.
First they have need to do checkouts on the rover’s surface flight software. Once that’s done, Perseverance needs to drive to the next location to find a safe spot for Ingenuity to fly. They’re calling it the “helipad location” and they might find it sooner than they anticipated.
“Based on where we landed we’re already starting to look at that data. There might be some really good helipad location nearby,” Hwang said.
Once the location is determined, Perseverance will gently release the helicopter from underneath and drive away.
“That’s a highly critical event first time on Mars so we’re putting all hands on deck for that one and doing several practice sessions,” Hwang said.
When Ingenuity does take flight camera will be rolling on that too.
After Ingenuity takes flight, Perseverance will roam the Martian surface for the next two years taking core samples which will be returned to Earth around 2031.