The Perseverance Mars rover's "sky crane" descent stage made the ultimate sacrifice last week, and we now have a photo to memorialize the flying robot's heroic death.
The rocket-powered sky crane lowered the car-sized Perseverance rover (opens in new tab) to the floor of Mars' Jezero Crater on cables last Thursday (Feb. 18), bringing the rover's harrowing "seven minutes of terror" entry, descent and landing (EDL) sequence to a successful end (opens in new tab).
Just after the rover's wheels touched down, the sky crane flew off to crash-land intentionally a safe distance away — and Perseverance snapped a photo of the impact's immediate aftermath, NASA announced Wednesday (Feb. 24).
Video: Perseverance spots sky crane's Mars impact plume after touchdown (opens in new tab)
Related: NASA's Mars 2020 rover mission in pictures (opens in new tab)
"A moment of respect for the descent stage. Within two minutes of safely delivering me to the surface of Mars, I caught the smoke plume on one of my Hazcams [hazard-avoidance cameras] from its intentional surface impact — an act that protected me and the scientific integrity of my landing site," agency officials wrote via the mission's official Twitter account, @NASAPersevere (opens in new tab).
A moment of respect for the descent stage. Within two minutes of safely delivering me to the surface of Mars, I caught the smoke plume on one of my Hazcams from its intentional surface impact — an act that protected me and the scientific integrity of my landing site. pic.twitter.com/bG4dekrbvJFebruary 24, 2021
Perseverance documented its EDL in unprecedented detail, capturing high-definition video with multiple cameras as it blazed through the Martian sky toward Jezero's floor. That epic video (opens in new tab) shows key events in the touchdown sequence, including the deployment of the mission's supersonic parachute and the moment the rover's six wheels hit the red dirt.
Other robotic eyes were watching on Thursday as well. For example, the HiRISE camera aboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (opens in new tab), which has been circling the Red Planet since 2006, snapped a photo of Perseverance gliding through the alien skies beneath its parachute. And a day later, HiRISE imaged mission hardware on the ground — not just Perseverance, but also its sky crane, heat shield and parachute-backshell combo in their various resting spots within Jezero.
Perseverance is the centerpiece of the $2.7 billion Mars 2020 mission, which will hunt for signs of ancient life and collect and cache dozens of samples for eventual return to Earth. The rover is still going through its post-landing checkouts, but it has already begun imaging its surroundings in detail.
For instance, the mission team just released a high-definition, 360-degree panorama of the landing site (opens in new tab) stitched together from 142 images captured by Perseverance's Mastcam-Z camera system. The gorgeous photo provides our best look yet at Jezero Crater, which long ago harbored a river delta that spilled into a lake hundreds of feet deep.
We'll learn much more about this mysterious place after Perseverance gets fully up and running. So stay tuned!
Mike Wall is the author of "Out There (opens in new tab)" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.