The Perseverance rover is sending back the sounds of Mars – and it’s contributing to the soundtrack.
New audio returned from the rover’s SuperCam includes the popping sound of the instrument as it zaps rocks with its laser. It’s the first time we’ve heard what it sounds like when a laser interacts with a rock on another planet.
Some of the rover’s instruments are still being tested for readiness, but SuperCam has already returned its first results, including those sounds of it zapping rocks to learn more about their composition.
What, exactly, do these recordings tell scientists? There is a shift in some of the pops because some sound louder than others. Researchers can use these variations to understand more about the physical structure of rocks, including how hard they are.
Capturing audio is just one of the SuperCam’s capabilities. It’s a 12-pound sensor head on the rover’s mast, or neck, that can analyze the intriguing geology on Mars in five different ways. The instrument includes a camera, laser and spectrometers that can identify the chemical and mineral composition of rocks and soil.
Scientists can use SuperCam to help them select which rocks they collect samples from in the search for ancient microbial life on Mars. Future missions will return those samples to Earth in the 2030s.
“It is amazing to see SuperCam working so well on Mars,” said Roger Wiens, principal investigator for SuperCam at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, in a statement. “When we first dreamed up this instrument eight years ago, we worried that we were being way too ambitious. Now it is up there working like a charm.”
The instrument was developed by a joint team from both the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales in France.
SuperCam includes a visible and infrared sensor, called VISIR, and a Raman spectrometer. While VISIR uses sunlight to analyze minerals in rocks and sediment, the Raman spectrometer uses a green laser that can probe the chemical makeup of a rock. The capabilities of SuperCam allow scientists to gain an understanding of rocks on Mars down to an atomic and molecular level.
The instrument’s targets can be as small as the point of a pencil located at a distance more than 20 feet away from the rover.
“This is the first time an instrument has used Raman spectroscopy anywhere other than on Earth!” said Olivier Beyssac, CNRS research director at the Institut de Minéralogie, de Physique des Matériaux et de Cosmochimie in Paris, in a statement.
“Raman spectroscopy is going to play a crucial role in characterizing minerals to gain deeper insight into the geological conditions under which they formed and to detect potential organic and mineral molecules that might have been formed by living organisms.”
The microphone on the rover is capturing sounds of remarkable quality, said Naomi Murdoch, a research scientist and lecturer at the Institut Supérieur de l’Aéronautique et de l’Espace Aerospace engineering school in Toulouse.
“It’s incredible to think that we’re going to do science with the first sounds ever recorded on the surface of Mars!” she said.
Three audio files were shared along with the first results from the SuperCam data.
The first recording, captured by SuperCam on February 19, was only recorded about 18 hours after the rover landed on Mars. The rover’s mast, which includes SuperCam and the microphone, had not unfolded yet, so the sounds are muted. But Martian wind, albeit muffled, can be heard.
The second audio recording was captured three days later, after the mast was deployed, and includes a better idea of what the Martian wind sounds like.
And the third recording, taken March 2, includes 30 pops, or impacts, as the SuperCam laser targeted a rock called “Máaz” – the Navajo word for Mars – that was 10 feet away from the rover.
“I want to extend my sincere thanks and congratulations to our international partners at CNES and the SuperCam team for being a part of this momentous journey with us,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, in a statement.
“SuperCam truly gives our rover eyes to see promising rock samples and ears to hear what it sounds like when the lasers strike them,” he said. “This information will be essential when determining which samples to cache and ultimately return to Earth through our groundbreaking Mars Sample Return Campaign, which will be one of the most ambitious feats ever undertaken by humanity.”