NASA releases amazing video and audio from Mars

For the first time ever, NASA has captured video of a rover landing on the surface of Mars, plus audio of the wind whistling past it after the landing — and Amazon Web Services is playing a key role in making all those gigabytes of goodness available to the world.

The stars of the show are NASA’s Perseverance rover and the hundreds of scientists and engineers supporting the mission to Mars at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and other institutions around the world. But the fact that thousands of images are being pumped out via NASA’s website with only a few hiccups is arguably a testament to AWS’ performance.

“AWS is proud to support NASA JPL’s Perseverance mission,” Teresa Carlson, Amazon Web Services’ vice president of worldwide public sector and industries, said today in a blog post. “From the outset, AWS cloud services have enabled NASA JPL in its mission to capture and share mission-critical images, and help to answer key questions about the potential for life on Mars.”

More than 23,000 images, amounting to 30 gigabytes of data, were gathered during the final minutes of Perseverance’s journey to Jezero Crater on Mars, said Dave Gruel, camera suite lead for entry, descent and landing at JPL.

A couple of cameras looked up from the spacecraft’s back shell to document the deployment of the parachute. Another camera looked down from the “Sky Crane” descent stage to watch the rover’s touchdown. Meanwhile, cameras on the rover looked up at the Sky Crane and looked down and out to survey its surroundings.

All those perspectives were put together in a three-minute video that documented the milestones of the descent, from the time the parachute popped open to the rover’s dusty touchdown. At the end, video from the rover shows the descent stage flying away to its safe disposal, powered by a set of thrusters built by Aerojet Rocketdyne in Redmond, Wash.

“It gives me goosebumps every time I see it,” Gruel said at today’s news briefing, conducted under COVID-19 conditions at JPL in Pasadena, Calif. “I hope everybody kept their hands and arms inside the vehicle at all times while it was in motion.”

That’s not all: A modified off-the-shelf microphone was hooked up to the rover, with the intention of recording the sounds of the air whistling past during the descent.

No sounds were recorded as the rover dropped, but once Perseverance had settled on its landing spot, the microphone captured the rumble of Martian wind gusts.

Gruel said the characteristics of the sounds suggest that the gusts were blowing at about 11 mph (5 meters per second).

As the mission proceeds, the microphone could capture the crunch of rocks beneath the rover’s wheels as they roll, deputy project manager Matt Wallace said.

Both the video and the audio broke new ground for NASA: Although there’s been descent imagery from past space odysseys, including the Apollo moon missions and the Mars Curiosity rover mission, this was the first time a robotic video camera clearly captured the moment of touchdown on another planet.

As for the audio recordings, Soviet landers recorded sounds on the surface of Venus, the European Space Agency captured sound samples during the Huygens lander’s descent to the surface of Titan, and NASA’s Mars InSight lander documented wind vibrations using an air pressure sensor. But Perseverance is the first to pick up the sounds of Martian winds directly with a microphone.

Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for space science, said this is “how it feels to make history.”

“The video of Perseverance’s descent and landing, and the amazing panorama and the first wide landscape shot of Jezero Crater seen with human eyes, and the first Martian sounds are the closest you can get to landing on Mars without putting on a pressure suit,” Zurbuchen said.

Releasing the raw images, video and the sounds should fire up the imagination — not only for future space missions, but for creative crowdsourcing here on Earth.

“Please go take a look at these data and play with them, especially those of you … that have signed up for our educational campaign,” Zurbuchen said.  “What can you find in these pictures? And who’s going to compose the first piece of music with actual Mars sound?” (Does this count?)

During the first couple of days of the mission, there was a fair amount of grumbling about the paucity of pictures released by the Perseverance team. But the situation changed dramatically today: The tally of raw images in NASA’s Perseverance gallery jumped from less than 200 to more than 4,600 over the course of just a few hours.

Amazon Web Services said NASA is using its cloud computing platform to process image data from Mars, and to power NASA’s Mars mission website.

“The website will be able to scale up to meet demand at any given time, with millions of visitors expected at peak times,” AWS said.

The navigation cameras on NASA’s Perseverance rover captured this view of the rover’s deck. (NASA / JPL-Caltech)

The plutonium-powered Perseverance probe is only four days into a mission that’s expected to last at least two Earth years, and most likely much longer. The $2.7 billion mission’s primary goal is to identify and store up samples that could hold evidence of past life on Mars. NASA plans to bring such samples back to Earth in about a decade for detailed lab study.

Leaders of Perseverance’s science team say they’re already seeing intriguing geological features to dig into, including an assortment of “holey” rocks that could be volcanic in origin.

“If they are volcanic rocks, that is enormously important to us, because it potentially provides an opportunity to get a really nice radiometric age, or an absolute date, if a sample like that comes back to Earth,” deputy project scientist Ken Williford said.

Bonus round: Check out these additional images from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and from the Perseverance rover:

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 210222-mro-1024x562.jpg
Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s view of the Perseverance landing site. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / Univ. of Arizona)

This annotated image from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter pinpoints the location of hardware components for the Mars 2020 mission, including the parachute and back shell, descent stage, Perseverance rover and heat shield.

Here’s a collection of closeups — showing, from left, the parachute and back shell; the remains of the descent stage with a greenish, false-color background to highlight the scattered debris, the rover at its landing site and the blackened area where the heat shield fell:

Images from orbit highlight the places where hardware ended up. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / Univ. of Arizona)
View of the Perseverance rover’s deck from its Mastcam-Z cameras. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / ASU / MSSS / NBI-UCPH)

Mastcam-Z, a pair of zoomable cameras aboard the rover, took a picture of its calibration target for the first time on Feb. 20, which was the second Martian day, or sol, of Perseverance’s mission.

In this natural-color composite image, you can see the Mastcam-Z primary-color and grayscale calibration target (the colorful circular object at right foreground) as well as the camera’s secondary calibration target (the small colorful L-bracket just below the primary target).

The Mastcam-Z team uses these targets to calibrate images of the Martian terrain to adjust for changes in brightness and dust in the atmosphere throughout the day.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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