Between ongoing heating bills, Town Meeting Day doldrums, a national pandemic, Trump’s millions of pages of tax returns, and news cycles that often feel relentless, we needed an out-of-this-world boost.
We got one this week. We visited Mars.
It wasn’t the moon landing. But it was another moment in our capacity to do truly amazing things. Across the world, schools did all they could to make NASA’s big news a teaching moment for children. The opportunity could not be lost.
The space agency released the first high-quality video of a spacecraft landing on Mars. According to an Associated Press account of the historic footage, it was so good — and the images so breathtaking — that members of the rover team said they felt like they were riding along.
It’s quite a show.
From the moment of parachute inflation, the camera system covers the entirety of the descent process, showing some of the rover’s intense ride to Mars’ Jezero Crater. The footage from high-definition (over-the-counter) commercial cameras aboard the spacecraft starts 7 miles above the surface, showing the supersonic deployment of the most massive parachute ever sent to another world, and ends with the rover’s touchdown in the crater.
A microphone attached to the rover did not collect usable data during the descent, but the (also commercial off-the-shelf) device survived the highly dynamic descent to the surface and obtained sounds from Jezero Crater on Feb. 20. About 10 seconds into the 60-second recording, a Martian breeze is audible for a few seconds, as are mechanical sounds of the rover operating on the surface.
“For those who wonder how you land on Mars — or why it is so difficult — or how cool it would be to do so — you need look no further,” said acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk. “Perseverance is just getting started, and already has provided some of the most iconic visuals in space exploration history. It reinforces the remarkable level of engineering and precision that is required to build and fly a vehicle to the Red Planet.”
“This video of Perseverance’s descent is the closest you can get to landing on Mars without putting on a pressure suit,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science. “It should become mandatory viewing for young women and men who not only want to explore other worlds and build the spacecraft that will take them there, but also want to be part of the diverse teams achieving all the audacious goals in our future.”
Also this week, a panorama of the rover’s landing location, was taken by the two Navigation Cameras located on its mast. The six-wheeled robotic astrobiologist, the fifth rover the agency has landed on Mars, is undergoing an extensive checkout of all its systems and instruments.
“We put the EDL camera system onto the spacecraft not only for the opportunity to gain a better understanding of our spacecraft’s performance during entry, descent and landing, but also because we wanted to take the public along for the ride of a lifetime — landing on the surface of Mars,” said Dave Gruel, lead engineer for Mars 2020 Perseverance’s EDL camera and microphone subsystem at JPL. “We know the public is fascinated with Mars exploration, so we added the EDL Cam microphone to the vehicle because we hoped it could enhance the experience, especially for visually-impaired space fans, and engage and inspire people around the world.”
Pretty cool, right?
“If this were an old Western movie, I’d say the descent stage was our hero riding slowly into the setting sun, but the heroes are actually back here on Earth,” said Matt Wallace, Mars 2020 Perseverance deputy project manager at Jet Propulsion Labs. “I’ve been waiting 25 years for the opportunity to see a spacecraft land on Mars. It was worth the wait. Being able to share this with the world is a great moment for our team.”
We should all be so giddy. It’s mission is simple: Find signs of ancient microbial life. The rover will characterize the planet’s geology and past climate, and pave the way for human exploration.
It is easy, especially as mud season fast approaches, to feel mired in the other shoulder season. But our capacity for innovation still can feel limitless. And weeks like this are inspiring to young people sitting at home, remote learning, feeling uninspired as the world gets vaccinated.
NASA’s work in the last 10 days is going to prepare astronauts for flights to Mars in the decades ahead, according to the engineers.
“I know it’s been a tough year for everybody,” said imaging scientist Justin Maki, “and we’re hoping that maybe these images will help brighten people’s days.”