After a nearly 7-month journey, NASA’s Perseverance rover safely landed on Mars on February 18. The rover’s Entry, Descent, and Landing (EDL) cameras have already snapped some incredible photos and—for the first time ever—recorded videos of its journey to the Martian surface.
“We collected a little over 30 gigabytes of information and over 23,000 images of the vehicle descending down to the surface of Mars,” Dave Gruel, the EDL camera lead at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a press briefing on February 22. “It gives me goosebumps every time I see it,” Gruel said.
Same here. The videos that Perseverance collected as it barreled toward Mars’s surface are unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. See for yourself:
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So what are you actually watching? Let’s break these clips down.
The first clip of the video shows the rover’s parachute deploying. “You can get a sense, really, of how violent that parachute deployment and placement are,” Perseverance EDL lead Al Chen, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in the press conference.
As the rover speeds through Mars’s atmosphere at a velocity of about 1,000 miles per hour (mph), the parachute deploys via a cannon-like contraption, reaching speeds of roughly 100 mph. It reached its full length (line stretch) almost instantly. “That’s about 150 feet behind the spacecraft, and it got there in just under one second,” Chen said. “So, this pack is really moving.”
Parachute inflation, which took place over the course of 7/10ths of a second, “looks textbook,” Chen said. “It’s really nice and symmetric.” None of the 2-mile-long parachute line system tangled. The parachute lid, which protected the parachute pack from heat as it hurtles toward Mars, ejected and can be seen veering off to the left. An unexpected piece of debris, a lid for one of the spacecraft’s antennas, also flew off during EDL, despite attempts to secure it.
The colors on the parachute are particularly important. The red and white pattern will help the rover’s operators determine the orientation of the parachute and whether certain areas had trouble inflating. Future parachute teams will study this footage for years to come, Chen said.
86ing the Heat Shield
Here, “you can see the electronics box and all the gold wires that lead to all the various sensors that measured the aerodynamics and heating during the entry portion of the flight,” Chen said. White flecks of frost, which built up over the cruise between Earth and Mars, fall off the shield as it floats toward the surface.
Chen also pointed out one of the few anomalies of the nearly perfect EDL sequence: near the 4:00 position on the heat shield, one of the nine springs designed to push off of the rover had come loose. “It’s not much of a big deal,” he said. “But it’s it’s definitely not what we expected.”
The heat shield gently floats out of view and away from Perseverance as it makes its way to the surface. It ultimately landed about a mile from the rover.
Because Percy overshot its landing site before settling down, the team was able to get a crystal clear view of the landing site from above. “There doesn’t appear to be too much of concern below us,” Chen said.
The video shows Perseverance dropping below the descent stage. Four cords (bridles) and a communications umbilical connect the rover to the retro-rocket-powered descent stage.
“That’s what’s transferring all the information between the rover and the descent stage, including this video,” Chen said. “This picture is coming down from the camera up on the descent stage down to the rover through that cord.”
Once fully extended, the rover’s wheels expand and settle into place.
A view from Perseverance looking up at the descent stage shows the stages’ hydrazine retrorockets, which don’t seem to be emitting anything, like smoke and steam. But don’t worry—everything went according to plan, Chen said. Burning hydrazine doesn’t produce a combustion reaction, and both of the exhaust products, nitrogen and hydrogen, are clear.
Up, Up, and Away
In one of the video’s final shots, Perseverance looks up as the descent stage disconnects and zips away to the Northwest, in an effort to avoid kicking too much Martian soil up onto the rover.
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has orbited the Red Planet since 2006 and will help ferry data back and forth from the rover to Earth, spotted all of the spacecraft’s components. The descent stage landed nearly half a mile from the rover, while the parachute ultimately came down about three-quarters of a mile away.
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