The next iconic space photo?
NASA just released an image showing its Perseverance Mars rover dangling about 6.5 feet (2 meters) above the red dirt during its picture-perfect touchdown inside Jezero Crater yesterday (Feb. 18). (Feb. 18). The stunning photo was taken by a camera on Perseverance's "sky crane" descent stage, which had nearly finished lowering the SUV-sized robot to the surface on cables at the time.
The image breaks new ground, documenting a Mars landing with detail and immediacy never seen before. It, therefore, deserves mention with the famous space photos that have moved us all over the years, such as the classic picture of Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin on the moon in July 1969 and the Hubble Space Telescope's famous "Pillars of Creation" shot, said Adam Steltzner, the chief engineer for Perseverance's mission, which is known as Mars 2020.
"It is absolutely exhilarating, and it is evocative of those other images from our experience as human beings, moving out into our solar system — those images that bring us into the process of our exploration," Steltzner said during a news conference today (Feb. 19) at which the new image was unveiled. "And I'm so happy that we can contribute another to that collection."
The awesome pre-landing picture is just a preview of what's to come. It's part of a high-definition video recorded by several cameras during Perseverance's entry, descent, and landing (EDL), which the Mars 2020 team hopes to have ready to present us by Monday (Feb. 22). (Feb. 22).
The video could include music, for the rover sports an EDL microphone. The team does not yet know if the mic worked yesterday, Steltzner said; that question should be answered over the weekend as Perseverance beams more data home to Earth.
The rover's landing sequence was also filmed from afar, NASA officials reported today. The agency's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been orbiting the Red Planet since 2006, snapped a shot of Mars 2020 cruising through the alien skies under its supersonic parachute.
"We're still figuring out the exact timing of when this image was taken as well," Aaron Stehura, the Mars 2020 EDL deputy step lead, said during today's news conference.
Yet Perseverance is not yet able to dig into this science work in earnest. The team must first conduct the usual post-landing evaluations, health checks, and deployments, which will take a few days. These checkouts are already underway, and the early returns are good.
"I'm happy to say that the rover is doing great and is healthy on the surface of Mars," Pauline Hwang of JPL, the Mars 2020 strategic mission manager, said during today's briefing. Perseverance "continues to be highly, highly functional and awesome, and I'm exhilarated," she added.
When Perseverance is ready to roll, its first stop would be a helipad — a good place for the mission's helicopter, called Ingenuity, to make a couple of groundbreaking flights. Ingenuity flew to Mars on Perseverance's belly and remains attached today; it will drop to the ground at the helipad, which the Mars 2020 team has not yet identified, then take to the skies after Perseverance has rolled a safe distance away.
Ingenuity doesn't have any science equipment — it's a technology demonstration — but the little craft can take color photos and video, so it can offer us an incredible, bird's eye view of Jezero. And Perseverance may attempt to record the 4-lb. (1.8 kilograms) chopper's trips, both with its cameras and its two microphones. (The other mic is part of the rover's rock-zapping SuperCam instrument.)
It's uncertain how long all of this will take. But during a post-landing news conference yesterday, Mars 2020 deputy project manager Jennifer Trosper, also of JPL, gave an estimate: helicopter prep and flights happening in the spring, and sampling and science work really ramping up this summer.