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Astro Bob: Mars Perseverance rover photographs eerie crash scene

It looks for all the world like a spaceship crashed on Mars. Find out what really happened.

Rover backshell
NASA's Ingenuity Mars Helicopter took this photo of Perseverance's backshell sitting upright on the surface of Jezero Crater as it whirred 26 feet (8 meters) above the ground during it 26th flight on Mars on April 19.
Contributed / NASA, JPL-Caltech
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Wow, right? This photo not only gets our attention because of what it shows but also the perspective from which it was taken. Engineers working on the Mars Sample Return program requested images of the backshell — used to house the Perseverance rover during its descent to Mars — from an aerial perspective to provide insight into the components' performance during the rover's entry, descent and landing Feb. 18, 2021.

Perseverance backshell on Earth NASA.jpg
Seen here in June 2011, the backshell carried the parachute and several components used during the later stages of entry, descent and landing. It's one part of the spacecraft's heat shield, which, combined with the front-facing shield, is called an aeroshell.
Contributed / NASA, Jack Pfaller

And how best to do that? Use the Ingenuity Helicopter , of course. In an amazing show of longevity and engineering awesomeness, the copter has flown 28 times since its arrival on Mars and covered 4.3 miles (6.9 kilometers) at a maximum altitude of about 39 feet (12 meters). Ingenuity uses solar panels to recharge its six lithium-ion batteries.

The tangle of cables seen streaming out from the top of the backshell, and coated with Martian dust, are high-strength suspension lines that connect the backshell to Perseverance's supersonic parachute (upper-left). The backshell and parachute helped protect the rover in deep space and during its fiery descent toward the Martian surface.

Rover landing
This is a still frame from the simulation video (above) that shows the parachute extending from the backshell that protected the Perseverance rover during its journey to Mars and through its atmosphere.
Contributed / NASA, JPL-Caltech

Despite knowing the content of the image, the scene feels surreal, as if we're looking at an alien craft that crash-landed on the Red Planet. In fact, that's exactly what we're seeing. From a Martian viewpoint, the aliens are us!

Perseverance in Jezero Crater
The Perseverance rover photographed this desolate scene in Jezero Crater on March 31. The rocks were likely excavated by an ancient impact.
Contributed / NASA, JPL-Caltech

Since landing last winter, Perseverance has been exploring and drilling into rocks in the floor of Jezero Crater. Jezero, named for a Bosnian village, means "lake" in many Slavic languages. Fittingly, the 28-mile-wide (45 kilometers) crater was once home to an ancient lake that long ago drained or evaporated.

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Rover at the delta
The positions of the Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter are shown May 8. The rover has recently arrived at the base of Jezero Crater's ancient river delta.
Contributed / NASA, JPL-Caltech

Its most distinctive feature today is a delta where a river emptied its sediments as it flowed into the lake some 3.5 billion years ago. This past week, the rover arrived at the delta's edge and will soon be sampling rocks and soil in search of microbial life that may have been preserved in those ancient, clay-rich sediments. For updated images of its finds, visit NASA's raw images site .

Zhurong with chute
China's Zhurong rover photographed its parachute and backshell July 12.
Contributed / CNSA

Meanwhile, China's solar-powered Zhurong rover is coming up on its first anniversary on Mars after soft-landing May 14, 2021. Using ground-penetrating radar, it's hunting for underground ice in the vast Utopia Planitia Basin, which may have once held a primeval ocean. The rover is also studying the weather, collecting soil samples and measuring the chemical composition of rocks and soil by zapping them with a laser much like Perseverance does.

And don't forget the Emirates Mars Mission, with its orbiting Hope spacecraft. It's been staring at the Martian atmosphere since Feb. 2021 trying to determine why the planet's climate changed from relatively warm and wet in the distant past to the dry, cold, desert it is today. Data confirm that Mars is slowly losing hydrogen and oxygen in its upper atmosphere to space, stripped away by regular tempests of charged particles from the sun called the solar wind. The gradual loss appears to be the key driver of Mars' catastrophic climate change.

Martian auroras
Hope photographed Mars in ultraviolet light to capture crustal field discrete aurora (forms over magnetic rocks) and sinuous discrete auroras that form during solar storms, when solar particles excite hydrogen atoms in Martian atmosphere.
Contributed / UAE Emirates Mars Mission

More fundamentally, Mars appears to be losing its air because it lacks a planet-wide magnetic field that would protect it from the Sun's windy wrath. Thinning air means colder temperatures and too little atmospheric pressure to keep liquid water from simply boiling away. Hope has also identified at least two types of auroras at Mars: a patchy variety that forms over areas rich in magnetic minerals and another that flares when solar storms excite hydrogen atoms in the Martian atmosphere.

Planet lineup
This simulation shows the four bright planets at dawn May 8. They'll remain in this order for another couple weeks.
Contributed / Stellarium

Consider adding your eyes on the Red Planet the next time you're out at dawn.

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"Astro" Bob King is a freelance writer for the Duluth News Tribune.

Related Topics: SCIENCE AND NATURE
"Astro" Bob King is a freelance writer and retired photographer for the Duluth News Tribune.
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