More than a year after arriving on Mars, NASA’s Perseverance rover has spotted its parachute and part of its aeroshell sitting on the surface of the Red Planet as the robot heads for a dried-up river delta where liquid water flowed billions of years ago.
The rover’s long-range zoom camera captured an image of the orange-and-white parachute lying on the rust-colored Martian soil. The craft’s back shell, which helped shield Perseverance during its plunge into the Martian atmosphere last year, is visible near the parachute.
The rover jettisoned the parachute and back shell about a minute before landing in Jezero Crater, a basin once covered in liquid water fed by a river flowing down from nearby highlands. The rover then slowed for landing with the help of a rocket pack, which lowered Perseverance to the surface of Mars on cables and bridles in a technologically complex method NASA calls the “sky crane.”
The mission’s supersonic parachute measured 70.5 feet (21.5 meters) wide when fully inflated. But then rarefied atmosphere on Mars meant the rover couldn’t slow for landing using aerodynamic braking alone, so the chute was jettisoned to free up the craft to finish the landing with its rocket-powered descent stage.
The one-ton, plutonium-powered Perseverance rover landed on Mars on Feb. 18, 2021, on a mission to collect samples for return to Earth. NASA and the European Space Agency plan to send a send a series of spacecraft to Mars later this decade to fetch the samples gathered by Perseverance, launch them off of the Red Planet and into space, then bring the specimens back to Earth for analysis in sophisticated terrestrial labs.
Perseverance deployed a rotorcraft named Ingenuity, which became the first helicopter to fly in the atmosphere of another planet. Ingenuity is still operating after transitioning from a tech demo experiment to a new role supporting mission planning and scouting for the rover.
The Perseverance rover has logged more than 5 miles (8 kilometers) of driving since its landing last February.
The rover spent the first part of its mission surveying the floor of Jezero Crater, and so far has sealed 10 of its 43 sample tubes, including an atmospheric sample and a “witness” or “blank” tube that scientists will use to calibrate measurements of Martian material gathered by Perseverance. The tubes are about the size and shape of a slim cigar.
Now the rover is in a “rapid traverse” mode, using on-board smarts to guide itself around obstacles and travel up to several hundred meters per today. Perseverance is driving toward a dried-up river delta, where liquid water once flowed into Jezero Crater.
So far, there’s “very compelling evidence” that all of the rocks studied and drilled by the rover so far have been igneous rocks produced by ancient volcanic activity and lava flows, according to Ken Farley, project scientist for the Perseverance rover at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Scientists hope to find sedimentary rock, material that was laid down by water billions of years ago, at the river delta location. Those types of rocks could hold clues about the ancient habitability of the region, a major objective of the Perseverance mission and the Mars Sample Return campaign.
Along the way to its next stop at the river delta, Perseverance routed near the location where its parachute and back shell fell to Mars during the mission’s landing.
The rover is not expected to linger, with managers prioritizing the drive toward the river delta to move into the next phase of the mission. Perseverance is also not stopping to look at rocks along the way to the delta location.
“The fast traverse is going very well,” Farley said a few weeks ago. “We’re making an average of about 250 meters per sol.”
A sol is a Martian day.
“We’ve made a conscious decision to focus on driving and not on, for example, stopping frequently to look at rocks,” Farley said.
Email the author.
Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.