▶ Watch Video: Space Watch: NASA shows Perseverance rover’s Mars landing

After a long weekend without any updates or imagery from the Perseverance Mars rover, NASA released a spectacular bounty of video Monday, including never-before-seen footage capturing the hair-raising descent to the surface of the red planet.

While previous landers captured still images during descent that later were stitched together to form a sort of stop-action movie, Perseverance was equipped with “ruggedized” off-the-shelf video cameras to shoot high-resolution imagery of the rover’s plunge to landing on the floor of Jezero Crater.

Over the weekend, engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, where Perseverance was built, downlinked 30 gigabytes of data from the rover, including 23,000 images and video frames. That allowed them to give the public a bird’s eye view of a landing on Mars.

“This is the first time we’ve been able to actually capture an event like the landing of a spacecraft on Mars,” said JPL Director Michael Watkins. “We will learn something by looking at the performance of the vehicle in these videos. But a lot of it is also to bring you along on our journey, our touchdown to Mars, and of course, our surface mission as well. These are really amazing videos.”

A camera on the Perseverance Mars rover captures a striking view across the floor of Jezero Crater, where the robot landed last Thursday. Cliffs 1.2 miles away on the horizon mark the edge of an ancient delta where a river once deposited sediments while filling a 28-mile-wide lake.NASA/JPL-Caltech


One camera mounted on the back of Perseverance’s flying saucer-like aeroshell captured crystal-clear views of the spacecraft’s 70.5-foot-wide parachute unfurling in the supersonic slipstream, inflating in a half second to act as a 60,000-pound brake, slowing the craft from just under 1,000 mph to a more sedate 200 mph.

Equally spectacular views looking down showed the approaching ground below as the 1-ton rover swayed gently under the parachute. The rover then fell free and its rocket powered backpack fired up, guiding the craft to a hazard-free landing site it selected earlier.

As the backpack lowered Perseverance to the surface, exhaust plumes from the descent vehicle’s eight engines kicked up swirling clouds of dust that briefly obscured the lander. Then, with its wheels on the ground, the support cables were cut and a camera on Perseverance showed the backpack lifting away and flying out of sight.

Three views of Perseverance’s landing on Mars: at top left, a camera on the rover is looking up at its rocket-powered descent vehicle, which is in the process of lowering the rover to the surface. At bottom left, a camera on the “sky crane” descent vehicle looks down on Perseverance. At right is an image of the ground, with clouds of swirling dust kicked up by the descent engines. NASA/JPL-Caltech


Along with the unprecedented video, NASA also released more photos from the surface showing the rover’s landing site in Jezero Crater, which once held a 28-mile-wide lake fed by a river that deposited sediments in a broad delta. Cliffs marking the edge of that delta some 1.2 miles away to the northwest can be clearly seen by Perseverance’s cameras.

An initial low-resolution panorama captures Perseverance’s landing site on the floor of Jezero Crater.NASA/JPL-Caltech


Deputy project manager Matt Wallace said the idea to put video cameras on board to document the rover’s entry, descent and landing came after he bought his daughter a small sports camera that she wore in a harness while practicing gymnastics.

“She did a back flip, and I don’t know about you, but I cannot do a back flip,” he said. “But when she showed me the video … I had a glimpse into what it would be like if I could do a back flip. And that was the moment that inspired a phone call to my friend (Perseverance camera engineer) Dave Grohl, and that’s what led to this system.”

Along with 25 cameras, the rover also carries two microphones. One failed to work during descent, but the other captured the sounds of the Martian wind blowing past. NASA released a snippet of audio picked up by the rover’s microphone — the first sound ever recorded on another planet.

Launched last July, Perseverance reached Mars on Thursday, February 18, plunging into the atmosphere for a seven-minute descent.

The river and the lake it fed some 3.5 billion years ago are long gone, but scientists say remnants of past microbial life, if such life existed, may preserved in lakebed deposits. Perseverance is the first lander sent to Mars specifically to look for such “biosignatures” and to cache soil and rock samples for eventual return to Earth.

Perseverance’s descent, like that of the Curiosity rover before it, is known as “seven minutes of terror” because of the extreme entry environment and the myriad events that must happen on time and without intervention from Earth to complete a successful landing.

The rover’s braking parachute has never been seen in action in the thin atmosphere of Mars. These two frames from a video show the parachute inflating in the supersonic slipstream exactly as tests indicated it should.NASA/JPL/Caltech


Despite promises before landing that “raw” images from the rover’s hazard avoidance cameras and others would be posted as they came in, less than half a dozen had been released by Friday evening and none showed up over the weekend.

That touched off concern among space enthusiasts, but Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s science director, tweeted Sunday the focus was on downloading on-board video and data about the health of the rover’s systems.

“Since the @NASAPersevere landing, we’ve been prioritizing two types of data: first-of-its-kind footage from the rover’s entry, descent & landing. And, health & safety data for the rover & its subsystems,” he tweeted.

He later added: “I am so proud of this @NASAPersevere team for working so hard and diligently and for being able to deliver things to us ahead of schedule because they know the intense public interest.”

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