Our Community. Our Nation. Our World.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Microphone Aboard NASA's Rover Aims To Pick Up Sounds From Mars

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A new NASA spacecraft bound for Mars launches from Florida today. It's one of three missions taking off this summer while Mars and the Earth are in a favorable orbit. The new U.S. mission is carrying something unusual for a spacecraft - a microphone. From member station WMFE, Brendan Byrne tells you about it from his.

BRENDAN BYRNE, BYLINE: When the Perseverance rover lands on Mars in February, it will unpack a suite of scientific experiments to help uncover ancient signs of life on the red planet - high-tech cameras, spectrometers, sensors and...

ROGER WIENS: This is the voice of Roger Wiens speaking to you through the Mars microphone on SuperCam.

BYRNE: Roger Wiens is the principal investigator of the rover SuperCam, a slew of instruments, including a camera, laser and spectrometer, that will examine the rocks and soil of Mars for organic compounds, a hint that there might be further evidence of past life. Tucked away inside the SuperCam is the Mars microphone.

WIENS: And so it is there to listen to anything interesting, first of all, on Mars. And so we should hear wind sounds. We should hear sounds of the rover. We might hear things that we never expected to hear. And so that's going to be interesting to find out.

BYRNE: The mic will also listen as Perseverance's onboard laser blasts nearby rocks.

ADDIE DOVE: You might think we're going to hear, like, pew pew, but we probably won't.

BYRNE: University of Central Florida planetary scientist Addie Dove says the sounds of Martian rock blasts will help scientists determine if they might contain organic material, evidence of life on Mars. But it will actually sound more like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROCK BLASTS)

BYRNE: Microphones on spacecraft are quite rare, really, because there's not much to hear in space. For sound waves to travel, you need an atmosphere.

DOVE: Sort of like a slinky - right? - compress the sound waves in between the source and your eardrums, and then they make your eardrums reverberate. And that's how we hear sound.

BYRNE: Still, spacecraft microphones have been used before. NASA'S InSight Mars lander caught a snippet of sound capturing wind vibrations from two of its sensors, not exactly microphones. The observation was a surprise to mission managers. Engineers converted the vibrations into sound, speeding it up and shifting the frequency up by 100 times for our ears to hear it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARS INSIGHT LANDER)

BYRNE: The Planetary Society says hearing things from another world would help build public support for space missions. For decades, the organization has lobbied for microphones on spacecraft. But those efforts have fallen short for technical reasons or lack of funding. So what will Mars actually sound like? That's still a mystery. The atmosphere of Mars is far less dense than Earth's and made up of mostly carbon dioxide. That's going to change the way sound works on Mars, says Wiens.

WIENS: You could not hear somebody scream from a block away on Mars. And so that's just - that's life on Mars. But what we will be able to hear are things that are close up. And it's going to still give us just a whole new world of information from this new sense that we will have on Mars.

BYRNE: The mic can also listen for mechanical issues as the rover moves across its landing site, Jezero crater. It's like when you're driving your car and hear a strange rattling sound, you know it's time to take it to a mechanic. For NPR News, I'm Brendan Byrne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.