NASA’s next Mars mission will literally be wired for sound.
The Perseverance rover is set to launch no earlier than July 30 for an ambitious mission to the Red Planet that includes launching a helicopter. This time, the hope is ardent followers will literally be able to listen in to the rover’s activities.
The rover will in fact carry two microphones. One will be on the ambitious entry, descent and landing system designed to carry Perseverance safely through the atmosphere to the Martian surface. After a Curiosity rover-like “seven minutes of terror” landing on Feb. 18, 2021, viewers can watch a “sky crane” deploy Perseverance through on-board cameras, and listen in to the sounds of wind, weather and rover through the attached microphone.
The other Perseverance microphone will be wired to the laser-beaming SuperCam instrument designed to zap rocks to learn more about their composition. Scientists expect that listeners will hear a “pop-pop-pop” sound every time the laser fires in search of organic compounds, or the building blocks of life.
Together, the microphones will transform Mars exploration into a 4-D experience, between the cameras that are diligently recording Perseverance’s movements across Jezero Crater, and the sounds that are flowing in as the rover moves from place to place on the Red Planet. What’s more, it’s not the first time humans tried to listen in on Mars.
The Planetary Society says that no fewer than three missions have tried to bring microphones to Mars, but all those previous attempts failed. The repeated, futile efforts show just how hard it is to deploy technology on a distant planet, even a planet that we have visited dozens of times between probes and landers.
The first known mic flew on the infamous NASA Mars Polar Lander, which began to make a descent to Mars in December 1999. During landing, unfortunate controllers discovered the spacecraft abruptly stopped sending data back to Earth. A technical error resulted in the lander shutting off its engines far too early and crashing into the surface, destroying the mission and any hopes of doing science.
The French space agency CNES decided to follow up the effort with its ambitious NetLander mission, which was supposed to launch in 2007. NetLander would be the first time four identical landers would alight in different areas of the Red Planet at the same time, to get a sense of the planet’s atmosphere, surface and interior. Unfortunately, funding difficulties canceled the effort three years before launch.
The last mic attempt (or would it be, mic drop?) actually did make it onto the surface on NASA’s Phoenix mission, which made a daring polar landing in 2007 to learn more about the history of Martian water — a key in understanding the chances for life on the surface. But the mic was never turned on. Engineers found a problem with the mic that could affect the success of more vital systems, and for spacecraft safety reasons they deactivated the mic before landing.
Incredibly, NASA’s other rovers never had a mic on them. This means that the Spirit and Opportunity rovers that lasted years on the surface and ranged for miles showing us signs of ancient water never could bring us the sounds of Mars. Curiosity, which landed in 2012 and is doggedly climbing a mountain while documenting the view in amazing pictures, is similarly silent. But perhaps this mic on Perseverance could usher in a new revolution of sounds of the solar system.
With so many of us stuck at home these days amid pandemic quarantine measures, virtually traveling the universe probably has no better appeal. Experiencing the sights and sounds of distant lands on Earth through radio, television and Internet has inspired many people to see those places for themselves. Perhaps listening to mics on Mars will encourage youngsters to study the universe and make valuable scientific discoveries that will improve life for all of us.