February 17, 2022

Hear the sounds of Mars: How NASA records audio from Perseverance rover

For the first time ever, thanks to the Perseverance rover, humans are able to hear sounds produced on Mars.

NASA released details of the microphones installed on the rover spacecraft this week, along with a video featuring several sound clips. Longer versions of the clips are available on the Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover website.

Nearly five hours of wind gusts, motor sounds and rover wheels traversing the ground beneath them have been recorded. The sounds give scientists a new dimension through which to observe the Red Planet.

“It’s like you’re really standing there,” Baptiste Chide, a planetary scientist who studies data from the microphones at L’Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planétologie in France, said on the NASA website. “Martian sounds have strong bass vibrations, so when you put on headphones, you can really feel it. I think microphones will be an important asset to future Mars and solar system science.”

There are two microphones aboard the six-wheeled rover, one on the port side and one on its mast as part of the SuperCam instrument. The SuperCam studies rocks and soil by zapping them with a laser before analyzing the resulting vapour with a camera.

Those laser zaps have been caught on microphone as well, with more than 25,000 being recorded to date.

Some sounds can also help analyze changes in the planet’s atmosphere. The microphone on the mast can work with the rover’s wind sensors in monitoring minute shifts in the air, also known as microturbulence.

“From the weather scientist’s point of view, each perspective — detail and context — complements one another,” said Jose Rodriguez-Manfredi of the Centro de Astrobiología at the Instituto Nacional de Tecnica Aeroespacial in Madrid.

The atmosphere on Mars is much less dense than it is on Earth, which means high-pitched sounds would be difficult to hear. But scientists were apparently surprised when the buzzing of Ingenuity’s rotors was picked up from 80 metres away during one of its flights. Ingenuity is a small robotic helicopter assigned to help with Perseverance’s mission.

Information from the helicopter audio led researchers to eliminate two of three models they had developed about how sound propagates on Mars.

“Sound on Mars carries much farther than we thought,” said Nina Lanza, a SuperCam scientist who works with the microphone data. “It shows you just how important it is to do field science.”

Another thing sound may be able to help with is maintenance on Perseverance. Microphones could help engineers listen for problems the same way a mechanic may listen to a faulty car engine.

The Perseverance team is in the process of collecting a large number of recordings so that they may be better able to detect changes in the rover’s systems over time.

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