NASA has released new photos of its Perseverance Mars Rover taken just moments before its six wheels hit the ground, an astonishing glimpse into the fiendishly complex descent on its innovative Sky Crane. The Perseverance rover – complete with its Mars helicopter companion – touched down on the surface of Mars on Thursday afternoon, February 18, the culmination of millions of miles of travel and years of work by NASA and its partners.
The descent was all the more harrowing for that team because exactly how it went was completely out of NASA’s hands. At 147 million miles from Earth, Mars is well out of instantaneous communication distance. In fact, it takes more than 11 minutes for a signal to go one way: longer, in fact, than the trip down through the Martian atmosphere itself was due to run for.
That means Perseverance had to run the show, preprogrammed with a multi-stage process aiming to shed huge quantities of speed and end in a gentle touchdown. That included using Mars’ atmosphere to slow dramatically, popping a vast parachute to further reduce the rate of descent, just in time for sixteen precisely-controlled rockets to hide the “jetpack” down almost to the ground.
The last 70 feet or so saw the rover lowered on tethers from the jetpack, with NASA’s still-jaw-dropping Sky Crane system. That allows for a smoother, more controlled landing of Perseverance even if the ground underneath it is uneven. The jetpack then flies off to leave Jezero Crater – the rover’s new stomping grounds – unmarred.
This new image shared by NASA shows just how that descent took place, and it’s an incredible picture. Taken by a camera on the jetpack, it shows Perseverance in mid-air, suspended just moments before its six independently-controlled wheels made contact with Martian soil.
NASA will be sifting through plenty of photos and video from Mars over the coming months, as Perseverance’s systems come online and run through their checks. The rover has 19 cameras and two microphones, and is equipped with seven different scientific instruments to help explore both the surface of Mars and what’s underneath it. It’ll also be gathering samples into special tubes, designed to wait it out on the red planet until a future mission can recover them and, on a mission after that, return them to Earth for more analysis.
What we have for now are various images shared from some of the earliest cameras online. That includes a spanning panorama of the Mars horizon around the rover, plus shots close to Perseverance’s wheels.