What happened to NASA’s spacecraft after it dropped off the Perseverance rover?

NASA successfully landed its Perseverance rover on the surface of Mars last week, and shortly after released some mind-blowing footage of the nail-biting moments before touchdown.

The video was shot from several angles by different cameras, some on board the rover itself, others on the descent vehicle that used cables to lower the car-sized vehicle to the martian surface.

When the rover reached the ground, the cables automatically severed, with the final footage of the descent vehicle showing it disappearing into the martian dust that was kicked up by its thrusters.

Many people have been wondering what happened to the spacecraft after it flew away, and we have the answer.

First, let’s be clear about what happened in those final stages before touchdown, as the spacecraft’s structure altered dramatically during that time.

About 10 minutes before it entered the martian atmosphere, the spacecraft carrying Perseverance shed its cruise stage, which contained the solar panels, sensors, and fuel tanks that helped power it on its six-and-a-half-month journey from Earth to Mars.

NASA

Following a number of procedures to help steady its descent and keep it on course, the spacecraft deployed a parachute about three minutes before landing.

Just over two minutes before touchdown, the spacecraft shed its now-redundant heat shield.

At an altitude of about 1.4 miles — 60 seconds before Perseverance reached the martian surface — the rover and its rocket-powered descent vehicle (the descent stage with the sky crane) detached from the parachute and backshell.

Sixteen seconds out, the rover emerged from the descent stage, with cables lowering the vehicle carefully to the ground. When Perseverance’s wheels touched the surface, the cables automatically cut and the descent stage flew away.

So, where did it go? Well, it didn’t take up a position in Mars orbit or hurtle off into deep space. Nor did it burn up in the red planet’s atmosphere or head back to Earth. Instead, with its work complete, the descent stage used its onboard thrusters to fly a safe distance from Perseverance before crash landing on the surface.

Perseverance’s landing process borrowed a lot from the one used by Curiosity, NASA’s still-operational rover that landed on the red planet in 2012. Following the landing nine years ago, the space agency posted an image (below) taken by its Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter that showed “possible multiple impacts” from the descent stage’s heavy landing.

NASA

“The main crash site is seen at right, shaped like a fan,” NASA explained in notes accompanying the image. “Farther from the site are several smaller dark spots, which are thought to be secondary impacts from debris that continued to travel outward. The impact sites are darker because the lighter, reddish top layer of soil was disturbed, revealing darker basaltic sands underneath.”

As it did for the Curiosity mission, at some point we can expect NASA to post an image of the latest crash site once its orbiter has had a chance to photograph it.

In the meantime, if you haven’t already seen the amazing high-quality footage of the last week’s landing, do take a look.

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