The exploration firsts keep rolling in from NASA's Perseverance rover on Mars.
Perseverance captured audio during a drive on March 7, an unprecedented recording that reveals the many creaks and rattles made by the six-wheeled robot as it rolls over Mars' famous red dirt.
"A lot of people, when they see the images, don’t appreciate that the wheels are metal," Vandi Verma, a senior engineer and rover driver at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, said in a statement today (March 17), when the audio was released. "When you're driving with these wheels on rocks, it's actually very noisy."
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Perseverance's entry, descent, and landing (EDL) microphone recorded more than 16 minutes of audio during the March 7 drive, which covered 90 feet (27.3 meters) on the floor of Mars' 28-mile-wide (45 kilometers) Jezero Crater, NASA officials said.
The EDL mic has also captured the Martian wind and various whirrings of the rover. It didn't record audio during Perseverance's epic touchdown on Feb. 18 as planned, so we'll just have to make do with the amazing video the rover recorded that day.
Perseverance also has a second microphone, which is part of the rover's SuperCam instrument. The SuperCam mic has strutted its stuff already as well, recording the whoosh of wind and the snaps generated by the instrument's rock-vaporizing laser.
The recordings by the EDL and SuperCam mics are bringing Mars down to Earth in an entirely new way: No robot had ever captured true audio on the Red Planet's surface before.
And these audio files have more than just gee-whiz appeal; they can inform models of the Red Planet's atmosphere and help engineers monitor Perseverance's health, mission team members have said. In addition, details of SuperCam's snaps can reveal important characteristics about zapped rocks, including their hardness and whether or not they have a coating.
We could hear more dramatic, groundbreaking audio from one or both mics soon. The mission team is gearing up to fly Ingenuity, the tiny helicopter that traveled to Mars on Perseverance's belly. The rover will watch Ingenuity's pioneering test flights with its sharp-eyed Mastcam-Z camera system, and the microphone teams have said they'll likely try to document the flights as well.
Perseverance is just getting started on the floor of Jezero, which hosted a lake and a river delta in the ancient past. After Ingenuity gets off the ground, the rover will begin focusing in earnest on its main tasks — hunting for signs of ancient life and collecting dozens of samples for future return to Earth.
Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (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.