‘One thing we’ve by no means seen’: Mars rover beams again selfie of second earlier than touchdown


Los Angeles, February 19

NASA scientists on Friday presented striking early images from the picture-perfect landing of the Mars rover Perseverance, including a selfie of the six-wheeled vehicle dangling just above the surface of the Red Planet moments before touchdown.

The colour photograph, likely to become an instant classic among memorable images from the history of spaceflight, was snapped by a camera mounted on the rocket-powered “sky crane” descent-stage just above the rover as the car-sized space vehicle was being lowered on Thursday to Martian soil.

The first high-resolution, colour image to be sent back by the Hazard Cameras (Hazcams) on the underside of NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover after its landing on February 18, 2021, is shown during a NASA Perseverance rover initial surface checkout briefing at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. NASA/Bill Ingalls/Handout via REUTERS

The image was unveiled by mission managers during an online news briefing webcast from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) near Los Angeles less than 24 hours after the landing.

The picture, looking down on the rover, shows the entire vehicle suspended from three cables unspooled from the sky crane, along with an “umbilical” communications cord. Swirls of dust kicked up by the crane’s rocket thrusters are also visible.

Seconds later, the rover was gently planted on its wheels, its tethers were severed, and the sky crane – its job completed – flew off to crash a safe distance away, though not before photos and other data collected during the descent were transmitted to the rover for safekeeping.

One of the six wheels aboard NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover is seen in a high-resolution, colour image sent back by the Hazard Cameras (Hazcams) on the underside of NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover after its landing on Mars February 18, 2021. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Handout via REUTERS

The image of the dangling science lab, striking for its clarity and sense of motion, marks the first such close-up photo of a spacecraft landing on Mars, or any planet beyond Earth.

“This is something we’ve never seen before,” Aaron Stehura, a deputy lead for the mission’s descent and landing team, describing himself and colleagues as “awe-struck” when first viewing the image.

INSTANTLY ICONIC

Adam Steltzner, chief engineer for the Perseverance project at JPL, said he found the image instantly iconic, comparable to the shot of Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin standing on the moon in 1969, or the Voyager 1 probe’s images of Saturn in 1980.

He said the viewer is connected with a landmark moment representing years of work by thousands of individuals.

The descent stage holding NASA’s Perseverance rover can be seen falling through the Martian atmosphere, its parachute trailing behind, in this image taken on February 18, 2021, by the High Resolution Imaging Experiment (HiRISE) camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The ancient river delta, which is the target of the Perseverance mission, can be seen entering Jezero Crater from the left. Image taken on February 18, 2021. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Handout via REUTERS

“You are brought to the surface of Mars. You’re sitting there, seven meters off the surface of the rover looking down,” he said. “It’s absolutely exhilarating, and it is evocative of those other images from our experience as human beings moving out into our solar system.”

Steltzner called the picture “iconic”, putting it right up there with photos of Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin on the moon, Saturn as seen by Voyager 1, and the Hubble Space Telescope’s “pillars of creation” shot.

The image was taken at the very end of the so-called “seven-minutes-of-terror” descent sequence that brought Perseverance from the top of Mars’ atmosphere, travelling at 12,000 miles per hour, to a gentle touchdown on the floor of a vast basin called the Jezero Crater.

A number of thumbnail images have been beamed down so far, too many to count, said Pauline Hwang, strategic mission manager for surface operations. “The team went wild at seeing these first pictures,” she said

Next week, NASA hopes to present more photos and video — some possibly with audio — taken by all six cameras affixed to the descending spacecraft, showing more of the sky crane maneuvers, as well as the supersonic parachute deployment that preceded it.

The first high-resolution, colour image to be sent back by the Hazard Cameras (Hazcams) on the underside of NASAs Perseverance Mars rover is seen after its landing on Mars February 18, 2021. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Handout via REUTERS

Pauline Hwang, strategic mission manager, said the rover itself “is doing great and is healthy on the surface of Mars, and continues to be highly functional and awesome.”

The picture is so clear and detailed that deputy project scientist Katie Stack Morgan at first thought she was looking at a photo from an animation. “Then I did a double take and said: ‘That’s the actual rover!’”

The vehicle is healthy, according to officials, after landing on a flat, safe surface in Jezero Crater with just 1 degree of tilt and relatively small rocks nearby. For now, the systems still are being checked. It will be at least a week before the rover starts driving.

The river delta — awash three billion to four billion years ago — is just over one mile (2 kilometres) away. Scientists consider it the most likely place to find rocks with evidence of past microscopic life.

The vehicle landed about two kilometres from tall cliffs at the base of an ancient river delta carved into the corner of the crater billions of years ago, when Mars was warmer, wetter and presumably hospitable to life.

Another photo of Perseverance’s front right wheel, near rocks full of holes, already has scientists salivating. They’re eager to learn whether these rocks are volcanic or sedimentary.

It’s the ninth time that NASA has successfully landed on Mars, and the fifth rover.

As it did with 2012’s Curiosity rover — still roaming 2,300 miles (3,750 kilometres) away — NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter photographed Perseverance descending beneath its massive parachute. In each case, the spacecraft and chute resembled specks.

Curiosity’s cameras caught a stop-motion movie of the last two minutes its descent but the images were small and fuzzy. NASA loaded up the heftier Perseverance and its descent stage with more and better cameras, and made sure they were turned on for the entire seven-minute plunge through the Martian atmosphere.

China will attempt to land its own much smaller rover in late spring. It’s been orbiting Mars for one-and-a-half weeks. The United Arab Emirates also put a spacecraft into Martian orbit last week.

Scientists say the site is ideal for pursuing Perseverance’s primary objective – searching for fossilized traces of microbial life preserved in sediments believed to have been deposited around the delta and the long-vanished lake it once fed. — Reuters/AP



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