The world got its first close-up look at a Mars landing on Friday, as NASA released a spectacular image of its newest rover being lowered onto the dusty red surface.
The picture was released less than 24 hours after the Perseverance rover successfully touched down near an ancient river delta, where it will scan for signs of ancient life and set aside the most promising rock samples for return to Earth in a decade.
NASA fitted the spacecraft with a record 25 cameras and two microphones, both of which were turned on during Thursday’s descent.
The rover is seen in extraordinary detail only 6 1/2 feet (2 metres) off the ground, being lowered by cables connected to an overhead sky crane, the red dust stirred up by rocket engines. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, promises more pictures in the next few days and probably even an audio recording of the descent.
“This is something that we’ve never seen before,” flight system engineer Aaron Stehura noted at a news conference. “It was stunning, and the team was awestruck. There’s only a sense of victory that we were able to catch these and share it with the world.”
Chief engineer Adam Steltzner named the image “iconic,” bringing it right up there with images of Apollo 11′s Buzz Aldrin on the moon, Saturn as seen by Voyager 1, and the Hubble Space Telescope’s “pillars of creation” clip.
A number of thumbnail images have been beamed down so far, too many to count, said Pauline Hwang, strategic task manager for surface operations. “The team went wild” at seeing these first pictures, she said.
The image is so simple and informative that deputy project scientist Katie Stack Morgan at first thought she was looking at a frame from an animation. “Then I did a double take and said: `That’s the actual rover! ′ ”
The vehicle is stable, according to officials, after landing on a smooth, secure surface in Jezero Crater with only 1 degree of tilt and relatively small rocks nearby. For now, the systems still are being tested. It will be at least a week before the rover starts moving.
The river delta — awash 3 billion to 4 billion years ago — is just over 1 mile (2 kilometres) downstream. Scientists consider it the most likely location to find rocks with signs of past microscopic existence.
Another picture of Perseverance’s front right wheel, near rocks full of holes, already has scientists salivating. They’re curious to learn whether these rocks are volcanic or sedimentary.
As it did with 2012′s Curiosity rover — still wandering 2,300 miles (3,750 kilometres) away — NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter photographed Perseverance descending underneath its huge parachute.
In each case, the spacecraft and chute resembled specks. Curiosity’s cameras captured a stop-motion movie of the last two minutes its descent, but the pictures were tiny and blurry.
NASA loaded up the heftier Perseverance and its descent stage with more and better cameras, and made sure they were switched 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 1 1/2 weeks. The United Arab Emirates have placed a spacecraft into Martian orbit last week.