No country has ever successfully sent a microphone to Mars. As a result, we’ve never heard the eerie sounds of the surface of Red Planet.
“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,” famed astronomer Carl Sagan wrote in a 1996 letter to NASA, as quoted by the Planetary Society, a nonprofit space exploration advocacy group.
But with NASA’s Perseverance mission launching in just a single week — if the weather plays along — that all may change. The agency’s next-gen Mars rover is outfitted with not just one but two microphones.
After the craft’s six month journey through the solar system, the two microphones attached to NASA’s Perseverance rover could finally offer us a tantalizing first: a chance to listen to what Mars actually sounds like.
One microphone, on Perseverance’s Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) system, was designed to make sure the rover makes it down to Mars unharmed. Thanks to accompanying video, we could soon, for the first time ever, get to watch — and listen to — a Mars landing.
The second is part of the rover’s SuperCam instrument, which builds on Curiosity’s ChemCam, a laser beam that heats and vaporizes rocks to determine what chemicals they’re made of.
The microphones could also tell us about the rover’s health.
“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 and an advisor to the SuperCam team, in the statement.
Previous attempts at recording the sounds of Mars with a microphone quickly turned into an uphill battle with plenty of setbacks.
The Planetary Society, co-founded by Sagan in 1980, jumped into action in the mid-1990s to finally bring a microphone to Mars. Initially, the team was hoping to attach one to NASA’s Mars Polar Lander mission, set to launch in 1990.
They got to work and after raising $100,000, they came up with the Mars Microphone, the first crowdfunded scientific instrument to fly to another planet, according to the Society.
“The original Mars microphone we built was a smart little box, about 5 centimeters on each side, weighing 50 grams,” Delory said. “The microphone was built for extreme environments, and we tested it enough to know how robust it was.”
Unfortunately, a NASA committee dismissed the idea. A second chance to have it attached to France’s Netlander mission in 2007 cropped up, but the mission was canceled in 2004.
Several years later, a different microphone made its way all the way to Mars mounted to NASA’s Phoenix lander in 2008. In yet another unfortunate turn of events, the microphone had to be deactivated prior to the launch due to a technical glitch.
The closest the Earth has come to hearing the sounds of Mars was in December 2018, when NASA used InSight’s seismometer and air pressure sensor to capture something approximating sound. However, recordings had to be pitched and sped up to hear.
Let’s hope Perseverance makes it to Mars in one piece. Only then will be able to get to hear the sounds of an alien planet.
READ MORE: Perseverance microphones fulfill long Planetary Society campaign to hear sounds from Mars [Planetary Society]
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