NASA's new rover will be the first to use all five senses to explore Mars

Scott Sutherland
·6 min read
NASA's new rover will be the first to use all five senses to explore Mars
NASA's new rover will be the first to use all five senses to explore Mars

Embedded content: https://players.brightcove.net/1942203455001/B1CSR9sVf_default/index.html?videoId=6220420937001

It's now just days before NASA's new Perseverance rover lands on Mars. This mission features several milestone firsts, but one, in particular, stands out. It will be the first that allows us to use all five senses to explore another planet.

On Thursday, February 18, 2021, at roughly 3:55 p.m. EST, the robot population of Mars is expected to increase by two. At that time, if all goes as planned, NASA's Perseverance rover, and its tiny aerial drone, Ingenuity, will have safely touched down on the Red Planet. Once these two robots get started on their exploration of Jezero Crater, they will send back data about what they see, touch, 'taste', and 'smell'. Also, Perseverance will be the first to allow us to hear the sounds of Mars.

SIGHT

Perseverance features a total of 16 cameras — five on its mast, eight in various locations on its chassis, and three more on its 'turret hand'. The Mars Helicopter, Ingenuity, carries two more cameras of its own.

Perseverance cameras labeled NASA SSutherland
Perseverance cameras labeled NASA SSutherland

Perseverance's 16 cameras are labelled on this diagram. Not included are those directly involved with the entry, descent and landing, which are located on the spacecraft backshell, the descent stage, and the rover's underside. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Scott Sutherland

Every lander or rover that has touched down on Mars has included one or more cameras. So, this is nothing new. With each mission, the capabilities and resolution of the cameras increased, from Sojourner's 0.4-megapixel navigation cameras (Navcam) to Spirit and Opportunity's 1-megapixel panorama cameras (Pancam) to Curiosity's 2-megapixel mast cameras (Mastcam).

Perseverance can capture HD imagery like Curiosity, but its Mastcam-Z cameras also record video, and they can zoom in on targets. Even better, the rover's various engineering cameras will send back 20-megapixel full-colour pictures of its surroundings (compared to 1 megapixel black-and-white from Curiosity). These will be, quite simply, the best images of the surface of Mars we have ever seen.

TOUCH

It goes without saying that by merely having its wheels in contact with the Martian surface, the rover is experiencing touch.

NASA-Perseverance-Rover
NASA-Perseverance-Rover

This artist conception drawing of Perseverance on Mars shows off the rover's 'turret hand'. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

However, the 'hand' on the end of Perseverance's robotic arm carries instruments that will touch the surface. The drill contained in the turret will bore into surface rocks and sediments. It can even pick up samples of both the rock and the loose 'regolith' materials. These will be placed into sample collection containers for later missions to pick up and send back to Earth.

For a real 'sense of touch', though, the hand also includes the ground contact sensor, which tells the rover if the arm touches the surface. This sensory feedback will help protect the arm from damage.

'TASTE'

Similar to how we sample the flavours of our food, or how geologists sometimes lick rocks to determine their composition, Perseverance will use chemistry instruments to 'taste' samples on Mars.

25265 PIA24092-Main-1280
25265 PIA24092-Main-1280

This artist's rendering shows Perseverance using its PIXL instrument on a Martian rock. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

PIXL, or the Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry, is a spectrometer located on the rover's arm. Placed right up against a target, the instrument shines laser light onto the target's surface. The light reflected from the surface is then analyzed to determine the chemical composition of the minerals embedded in the rock.

'SMELL'

Perseverance has no nose, as we'd define it. However, the rover's SuperCam instrument, located at the top of its mast, is about as close as a robot can get.

Perseverance-SuperCam-PIA23316-NASA-JPL-Caltech
Perseverance-SuperCam-PIA23316-NASA-JPL-Caltech

Although it may look like an eye, SuperCam functions more like a nose, vaporizing samples at a distance of up to 20 metres to 'sniff' their mineral composition. This image of Perseverance's mast was taken on July 23, 2019. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Whereas taste is more about solids and liquids, smell is about gases and vapours.

So, while PIXL will be 'tasting' rocks and other samples for the rover, SuperCam will be approximating the sense of smell by vaporizing its targets. This instrument fires an infrared laser beam, which heats the materials up to 10,000°C, turning it into a vapour that the instrument's camera then images to determine what the target is made of.

In the video below, JPL scientists use SuperCam to zap a metal target, showing off the instrument's capabilities. Listen for the "pop" made by each of the laser's zaps.

Embedded content: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-rvWXCts420

HEARING

Speaking of listening, this is going to be a real first for space exploration. In the past, we have heard various 'sounds' from space. However, these have always involved taking some other form of data (like from Voyager's plasma instrument or InSight's seismometer) and converting it to sound. However, thanks to the inclusion of two microphones on the rover, Perseverance will record and send back actual audio recordings of sounds on Mars.

Perseverance microphones labeled NASA
Perseverance microphones labeled NASA

The location of Perseverance's two microphones are indicated on this digital model of the rover. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The microphone located on the chassis is specifically in place to record the sounds of the rover's entry, descent, and landing. According to NASA: "It may capture, for example, sounds of pyrotechnic devices firing to release the parachute, the Martian winds, wheels crunching down on the Martian surface, and the roaring engines of the descent vehicle as it flies safely away from the rover."

The other microphone is positioned near the SuperCam instrument on the mast. It will be used to record audio as SuperCam vaporizes rock samples or just capturing the sounds of the winds flowing across the floor of Jezero Crater.

"It is stunning all the science we can get with an instrument as simple as a microphone on Mars," Baptiste Chide, a planetary science postdoctoral researcher NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a NASA press release.

"Sounds on Mars are slightly different than they are on Earth because of the atmospheric composition and its properties," Chide explained. "All sounds will be lower in volume due to the low pressure. In addition, the higher-frequency tones will be strongly attenuated by the carbon dioxide molecules. All in all, it would be like listening through a wall."

Want to hear how different hearing sounds on Mars is like, compared to Earth? Turn your sound on and check out NASA's website.

"Recording audible sounds on Mars is a unique experience," Chide added. "With the microphones onboard Perseverance, we will add a fifth sense to Mars exploration. It will open a new area of science investigation for both the atmosphere and the surface."