Photos show NASA’s Mars rover coming in for landing

Perseverance will need to find a safe spot to deploy NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter

A NASA rover streaked through the orange Martian sky and landed on the planet Thursday, accomplishing the riskiest step yet in an epic quest to bring back rocks that could answer whether life ever existed on Mars.

With a help of a bunch of cameras and some spacecraft orbiting Mars the dramatic but flawless landing of a NASA rover on the red planet was recorded during the event and science teams are already itching to get more images of some rocks near the landing site.

Following the touchdown on Mars Thursday NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover team are already getting back images taken during the entry, descent and landing also known as “seven minutes of terror” that happened about 300 million miles away from Earth. Members of the rover’s team shared some of those first images Friday during an update from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

[NASA is expected to share more images, including video the Mars landing during a news briefing at 2 p.m. Monday. Watch live at the top of this story]

Adam Steltzner, chief engineer for the Mars 2020 mission, shared an aerial image of the rover as it was still about six feet off the ground.

“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,” Steltzner said. “You can see the dust kicked up by the rovers engines were probably about two meters or so above the surface of Mars.”

The cables holding the rover to its jetpack could be seen coming from the rover in the image.

Steltzner said the image represents the huge human lift to make the mission happen.

“The details there really pull off humans here on Earth, into the result of all of that hard work. You are brought into the surface of Mars you’re sitting there, seven years of the surface of the rover looking down,” Stelzner said.

Katie Stack Morgan, Mars 2020 deputy project scientist, said when she first saw the image it was almost unreal.

“We’re used to the engineers showing us animations of the rover and that’s at first what I thought this was and then I did a double take and said, ‘That’s the actual rover,’” Stack Morgan said. “And just to think that the last time I saw the rover like this, it was in the high bay at JPL is just incredible. And I can’t believe that I’m now seeing the rover on its way to the surface of Mars.”

Stack Morgan said the science team was really excited to see some of the first images taken from Jezero Crater where Perseverance landed and can’t wait to begin using the rover’s science instruments to further examine them.

“The big question for us, is are we looking at volcanic or sedimentary rocks? And those are the two I think dominant hypotheses that are out there right now,” she said. “Perseverance has the payload to help us figure this out and so we can’t wait to use our instruments, because really, you have to look at the fine detail and texture and the rocks to make that distinction.”

One of the first images captured by NASA's Perseverance rover shows its wheels and some Martian rocks. Taken on Feb. 18, 2021 just after landing on Mars. (Image: NASA JPL) (NASA 2021)

Stack Morgan estimates the crater where Perseverance landed is around 3.9 billion years old and the rocks seen in the first images could possibly be volcanic rocks.

“I think we could probably say that these rocks are between 3.8 to 3.6 or 7 billion years old, and that’s where we’re sitting here,” she said, adding “we think this area would have been a habitable environment.”

The rover’s science team is excited about the potential of volcanic rocks because they would make good candidates to take a sample and return to Earth.

“If these are volcanic rocks we are incredibly excited about that from a Mars sample return perspective, because we can really nail that age date with a sample from a volcanic rock,” Stack Morgan said.

This image captured by a spacecraft shows NASA's Perseverance rover midair, floating over Mars while hanging from its parachute during the final moments before landing. (Image: NASA JPL) (NASA 2021)

NASA will partner with the European Space Agency to conduct an elaborate sample-retrieval mission that will require another rover and lander.

NASA spacecraft also captured the 70-foot parachute deploy from Mars orbit showing the massive chute slowing the rover down for landing.

The rover immediately sent back a few black-and-white images Thursday right after landing but on Friday its team shared the first color-image taken by the rover.

The first color image from NASA's Perseverance rover taken right after landing on Mars Feb. 18, 2021. (Image: NASA JPL) (WKMG 2021)

In about 8 or 9 sols, or Martian days, the rover should began moving on its six wheels, according to Pauline Hwang, Mars 2020 Surface Strategic Mission Manager.

One of the rover’s task will be to find a safe spot to deploy the 4-pound helicopter strapped to its belly. The drone-sized helicopter named Ingenuity need a flat area to make the first ever Martian flight and landing.

After the team completes checkouts for the rover’s software and instruments it will begin looking for a helipad or spot to deploy the little helicopter. Hwang said Perseverance might not actually have to travel to far.

“We actually want to find a habitable environment for the helicopter to fly in. We call it the helipad location. So we don’t know how many sols it’s going to take, however, based on what were we landed we’re already starting to look at that data. There might be some really good what we call parking, helipad locations nearby.”

There is way more to come including video of the entry, descent and landing. The rover is equipped with microphones designed to capture the landing and then the sounds on the ground from Mars.

NASA will provide another update that might include video and audio on Monday.