The descent of a little rover from the top of the Martian atmosphere to the surface is one of the most notoriously stressful occasions in space exploration. When NASA’s newest rover, Perseverance, took the plunge last week, the engineers at mission control braced themselves. They knew just how much had to go right—and how much could go terribly wrong—in the next seven minutes.
The spacecraft came barreling into the atmosphere at thousands of miles an hour. Its cameras captured the action from several angles, documenting a complex sequence to slow itself or else crash, erasing years of work in an instant. The landing was picture-perfect. And yet, after NASA released the video footage of the descent to the public yesterday, my jaw dropped. What on Earth—no, what on Mars—did I just watch?
The engineers and scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the stewards of this mission, had reacted similarly. An earlier rover, Curiosity, had captured some of its intense descent, but these data were something else entirely: the first time a spacecraft had recorded such high-definition footage of itself landing on the red planet. No one had ever viewed a Mars landing this clearly.
“It is unlikely at this point in my career that I will pilot a spacecraft down to the surface of Mars, but when you see this imagery, I think you will feel like you are getting a glimpse into what it would be like to land successfully,” Matt Wallace, the Perseverance mission’s deputy project manager at JPL, told reporters at a press conference yesterday.
NASA has explored Mars for decades, with all kinds of spacecraft. Each mission has sharpened our view of the red planet. The orbiters provide stunning overhead views of craters carved by meteor strikes and deltas sculpted by ancient water. The rovers give us close-up looks at the craggy rocks and boulders scattered across the dry, barren terrain. Mars spacecraft have even photographed other Mars spacecraft, and sometimes taken selfies. But they have never truly documented that liminal space, the nerve-racking moments when a spacecraft is caught between the wispy boundaries of Mars’s atmosphere and the rugged contours of the planet’s surface.
The video begins with the spacecraft’s swift deployment of its parachute. A coin-shaped object appears in the frame and then flies away—the heat shield that protected the rover as it streaked through the atmosphere. The view shifts downward, and as the rover descends, the rich texture of the surface comes into view. Suddenly, the ground starts dancing—streaks of dust, kicked up by the spacecraft’s engine thrusters, race across the dirt. The sky crane is the last to go; the machine lowers the rover to the ground, then shoots away in a cloud of dust.
For most of human history, Mars was a tiny orange jewel in the night sky. The invention of the telescope helped magnify the image into a fuzzy marble against the darkness of space. The view became clearer as great thinkers built ever more powerful telescopes and launched complicated machines, first to fly past Mars, then to loop around the planet, and finally to land. The first close-up color image of Mars was hand-painted by NASA engineers working on a Mars flyby mission in 1965. They were so eager to see what the spacecraft had captured, they grabbed the numbers from the data that corresponded to color, printed them on strips of paper, and then colored them in.
The cameras that captured the rover’s descent footage had no bearing on its success, and if they had failed, the mission would have proceeded without incident. The engineers added them just because they wanted to see. Now that the rover has settled in, the many other cameras perched on its frame will capture some of the best views of Mars’s surface that Earth has ever had.
More than once, NASA officials have pointed out that Perseverance—Percy, for short—is an apt name for a mission that left Earth in 2020. The rover wears a plaque, drilled onto its exterior next to one of its wheels, that pays tribute to the health-care workers who have battled the COVID-19 pandemic. In the middle of a plague, a moment of marvel over another planet has a hint of absurdity. But perhaps especially in times like these, looking beyond this planet can be a hopeful act, and even provide a sense of wonder. Research in psychology has shown that the experience of awe and the distinct feeling it produces—a sense of smallness in the face of something larger than oneself—can make us feel more connected to other people. Watching a rover land on Mars from millions of miles away likely counts as a source of awe.
Five sols—Martian days—into its mission, the Perseverance rover is healthy. It has shed the hardware it needed during descent, and an orbiting spacecraft has already spotted the pieces scattered across the landscape, where they will remain untouched, gathering dust. The rover’s wheels are a little crooked, but engineers plan to command the rover to do a little wiggle and straighten them out. Soon, it will go for a drive. The rover will deploy a little helicopter called Ingenuity, which will become the first machine to take flight on Mars. While Ingenuity hops around, Percy will study rocks for evidence of fossilized life that might have thrived billions of years ago, when Mars was a warm, watery planet like our own. The rover has already made history by recording audio on Mars for the first time, so that the inhabitants of Earth may finally hear what this alien world sounds like. The recording contains two distinct noises. The first is the soft, mechanical whirring of Perseverance itself. The second is a gust of wind, so familiar to our ears that, for a moment, Mars feels closer to home.