NASA just released a cache of tantalizing photos from its Perseverance rover after landing on Mars Thursday, with one showing the rover getting dropped off by the rocket-powered platform it used to gently descend on the Red Planet’s surface. Scientists are poring through hundreds of images and expect to release more — including videos and audio — in the coming days.
The SUV-sized Perseverance rover touched down at Mars’ Jezero crater at 3:55PM ET on Thursday, surviving a seven-month journey from Earth and a blazing hot, seven-minute plunge through the Martian atmosphere. A jetpack called Skycrane gently lowered Perseverance to the ground on a set of cables from 66 feet above the surface, and took a picture of the process. Once it landed, the rover then began snapping its own photos and beaming them back to Earth.
The number of photos from Perseverance so far is “more than I can count... a higher number than I can say on my hand,” Pauline Hwang, assistant strategic mission manager, said at a press conference on Friday.
Getting them back, she said, “was exhilarating, the team went wild ... The scientists immediately just started looking at all those rocks and zooming in.”
The photos already have scientists asking a slew of questions about Mars’ geology. One photo of the rover’s front right wheel shows in the background a few Martian rocks perforated with tiny holes.
“Depending on what the origins of these rocks is, the holes can mean different things,” Katie Morgan, the mission’s deputy project scientist, said. If the holes are of a volcanic origin, they could be tiny vessels left over from gases that escaped, called “vesicles.” If they’re sedimentary rocks, the holes could signal that they were shaped by a fluid.
“Really, we have to get our instruments out and look at these textures in fine detail to really help us make that determination,” Morgan said.
One of those instruments is called SuperCam, which sticks out of the top of the rover and looks like Perseverance’s robot head. SuperCam will target Martian rocks, zap them with a laser beam, and analyze the cloud of vapor it creates.
Another image NASA released on Friday was taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, a geology satellite circling Mars, showing Perseverance descending through the atmosphere under its parachute moments before touching down.
Adam Steltzner, Perseverance’s chief engineer, likened the trove of Martian images from the rover to the iconic first shots taken on the moon in the ’60s, and the first image of Saturn that “brought to life the experience of space exploration,” he said.
“How many people were brought into the act of exploring space by these fantastic, iconic images?” Steltzner said at the press conference. “Well, we can only hope in our efforts to engineer spacecraft and explore our solar system that we might be able to someday contribute yet another iconic image to this collection.”