NASA unveils never-before-seen video from Mars rover landing on the red planet

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”