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Rover delivers an iconic selfie from Mars

Can NASA’s Perseverance rover compete with the Hubble Space Telescope or Apollo 11 when it comes to stunning views from space? We already know the answer: The moment just before the six-wheeled robot’s touchdown on Mars has produced a picture for the ages.

“This is an image of the rover Perseverance, slung beneath the descent stage, its propulsion backpack, as it is being lowered to the surface of Mars,” Adam Steltzner, chief engineer for the Perseverance mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said today at a briefing where the Feb. 18 image was revealed.

Steltzner pointed out the three cables that connected the rover to the “Sky Crane” descent stage, not yet cut for the landing. You can also see the curlicue of the rover’s electrical umbilical cord. “The ones and zeroes that represent this image will travel down that umbilical before it is cut and the rover is left safe on the surface of Mars,” he said.

Steltzner and his colleagues said they were awestruck when they saw the picture, just hours after it was captured and transmitted from Mars.

“This is something that we’ve never seen before,” said Aaron Stehura, JPL’s deputy phase lead for entry, descent and landing. “There was just a feeling of victory that we were able to capture this and share it with the world.”

And that’s just the beginning: Pauline Hwang, strategic mission manager for the Mars 2020 mission, said the initial haul of imagery from the rover amounted to more pictures than she could count. In the days ahead, the team is expected to release more pictures from an area that could yield evidence of past life on Mars.

Thanks to a technological innovation known as terrain-relative navigation, Perseverance’s scientists and engineers have a head start on mission planning. They know exactly where they are: close to a transition point between one type of rock and another, and only a mile or two away from what’s thought to have been an ancient river delta.

That formation in Jezero Crater is considered prime territory for seeking fossilized traces of long-gone microbes. Perseverance is designed to drill out core samples from such areas and store them up for delivery to labs on Earth in the early 2030s.

As of today, there are 11 active robotic missions to Mars — including orbiters from China and the United Arab Emirates that arrived at Mars earlier this month. Perseverance’s older sibling, the Curiosity rover, is still at work in Gale Crater eight and a half years after its landing. And another robotic spacecraft, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, captured an amazing view of the rover from above:

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captures the rover’s parachute-aided descent. (NASA / JPL / Univ. of Arizona)

In the wide-scale MRO image, the descent stage that holds the rover shows up as a mere speck, sailing over Jezero Crater from left to right. But a super-high-resolution view, seen as an inset in the wide-scale picture, reveals the parachute and the descent stage as separate objects.

NASA says in an image advisory that the picture was taken by MRO’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE, when the orbiter was about 435 miles from Perseverance and traveling at about 6,750 mph. That’s like taking a picture of a hot-air balloon drifting over Glacier National Park from a rocket ship zooming over Seattle.

Closer to the ground, one of Perseverance’s hazard avoidance cameras focused on the rocks beneath the rover’s front right wheel: 

This view shows one of the rover’s wheels with Martian rocks below. (NASA / JPL-Caltech)

Deputy project scientist Katie Stack Morgan said the rock near the wheel’s edge poses one of the mission’s first scientific mysteries.

“One of the first things we noticed was that it has a lot of holes or vugs in it. There are a number of geological processes that can make holes in a rock like that. So the science team is now thinking about what this might mean, and one of the things we’ll ask first is whether these rocks represent a volcanic or sedimentary origin,” she said.

“Both of those would be equally exciting to the team,” she said.

There’s lots more to come in a mission that’s expected to last at least two years. Over the next few days, the mission team is due to survey Perseverance’s surroundings and plot a course for the first short drive.

It’s likely to take a couple of months for Perseverance to get settled on a “helipad” that would serve as the home base for test flights of the Ingenuity mini-helicopter that’s currently tucked under the rover’s belly. Steltzner said those flights just might yield yet more iconic imagery.

Perseverance will be programmed to watch the rover as it flies through the thin Martian air. And the helicopter will be watching, too.

“The helicopter does have the capacity to take color images and even color video, and beam that back to the rover, and then the rover back to Earth. That’s part of the extra data that it can take,” Steltzner said.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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