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Radio Mars? Broadcasts From Red Planet to Begin Next Year

Mars rover being hoisted into the air
Perseverance will also be carrying a helicopter, visible in the lower center attached to the rover’s undercarriage. It will be deployed about two months after the rover lands. NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s soon-to-launch Perseverance rover will contain equipment to sample rock and soil that will be used to search for ancient microbial life on Mars. But the craft will also have two microphones on board that will let us hear for the first time what our planetary neighbor sounds like. 

Perseverance has just cleared its Flight Readiness Review and is currently undergoing final checks to prepare for the launch window that opens at 7:50 AM EDT on July 30. If all goes well, the rover will be hurtled into space for arrival at Mars around February 18, 2021. It will then get busy using a special drill to take core samples of various rocks and soils and store them in a cache for a potential pick-up one day from another craft for return to Earth. But that’s not the only mission of Perseverance. 

Crane lifting rover near rocket
The rover getting ready to be paired with the Atlas V rocket that will launch it towards Mars. NASA/KSC

If a Rock Is Vaporized and No One Is There to Hear it…

The rover will have two microphones onboard. One is part of Perserverance’s Entry, Descent, and Landing (EDL) system, and it will record the sounds of the Martian atmosphere as the craft drifts to the surface for landing. The other is part of the rover’s SuperCam, a system that will be vaporizing rocks with lasers and using visual analysis to determine their composition. When the rocks explode, the mic relays the sound to scientists who can analyze the audio to help further define the composition of Martian geology. 

The SuperCam mic will also record the rover going about its tasks, which the scientists say can help determine if it is working correctly. “Hearing how the mast swivels, the wheels turn, or hearing how other instruments sound can also be an important engineering diagnostic tool,” said Greg Delory, the CEO and co-founder of space hardware company Heliospace, which helped build a prototype Mars mic for the Planetary Society.

Perhaps most tantalizing of all is that the mic will be able to grab sounds from the surface of the planet as well, such as the rumbles weather systems might make or the whistle of the Martian wind.

Long Time Coming

The idea of sending a microphone to Mars has been kicking around since the mid-1990s when scientists at UC Berkeley approached the Planetary Society for help. Although other missions carried mics as a result of that initial partnership, they each experienced difficulties that kept them from sending back sounds. The Mars Polar Lander was lost on descent, and the mic on the Phoenix lander was turned off before launch because engineers spotted a problem with its electronics that could affect other systems.

“We’ve been able to see Mars from the rovers’ point of view for a long time now,” said Lou Friedman, who founded the Planetary Society with Carl Sagan and Bruce Murray in 1980. “To be able to add another sense to our understanding of Mars is going to be incredible.”

Sagan himself began lobbying for a microphone to be sent to Mars with a letter to the agency in 1996 stating: “Even if only a few minutes of Martian sounds are recorded from this first experiment, the public interest will be high and the opportunity for scientific exploration real.”

One can only imagine that the Planetary Society considers “Perseverance” a very fitting name for this new rover that is set to make Sagan’s request a reality.

Artist's rendering of Perseverance rover and Ingenuity Mars Helicopter
Artist’s rendering of Perseverance rover and Ingenuity Mars Helicopter NASA/JPL-Caltech