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What Does Mars Sound Like? NASA & Clarke Find Out

4 min read

Clarke preschoolers received a visit from NASA scientist Dr. Mike Hecht* in 2021 and had the opportunity to ask questions about outer space. Muhammad, pictured here, asked “How can they make oxygen so people can breathe?”

The First Audio Recording from Mars

According to the Planetary Society, its co-founder, American astronomer and planetary scientist Carl Sagan, wrote a letter to NASA in 1996 urging the space program to consider the need for recording sound on the 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,” he said.

After eight attempts to record sound on Mars from various countries and space agencies—which included inactive microphones, equipment malfunctioning and cancelled missions—NASA’s Perseverance rover successfully captured the first ever audio from Mars in 2021.

The two microphones built into the Rover captured both the sounds of the landing and the atmosphere, as well as noises created when NASA’s lasers pierce rock—helping scientists understand the mass and composition of rocks on Mars, and thus providing more information about the geological makeup of the planet.

A NASA Scientist Explains

Dr. Mike Hecht, associate director at MIT’s Haystack Observatory and principal investigator on the MOXIE mission, working in the MOXIE development laboratory at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, California.

We spoke with Dr. Mike Hecht, principal investigator of the MOXIE experiment (a device used to successfully extract oxygen from carbon dioxide) on NASA’s Perseverance rover and the associate director for research management at MIT’s Haystack Observatory, about these scientific breakthroughs.

“The EDL [microphone] stands for entry, descent and landing, which is just what it sounds like,” he explains. “That’s that seven minutes of terror we hear about… It’s really interesting to hear the wind sounds as we go through the atmosphere, because the acoustic signals tell you something about how the spacecraft is falling through the air. As you know, if you’re going high speed in a car and you unroll the window a little bit, you can get all the pulsing sounds. These things are diagnostic. They tell you about your entry.”

And the other microphone, the SuperCam mic, “That’s the instrument with a laser,” Mike says.  It’s kind of a focused pulse laser that has enough power in little bursts to make little indentations, and actually remove some material from a rock… And this would be really useful to listen to, because if we could listen to the sound, we can tell even more about the rock from the sound it makes.”

Capturing audio on Mars has already made an impact on his work. “It’s proven very useful,” he says. “People are now thinking of all kinds of uses for the ability to hear. Until you hear the sounds, you kind of don’t know what you can do with it. And people are getting really excited about how much can be done.” Including students at Clarke!

Clarke Preschoolers Join the Conversation

In 2021, preschoolers at Clarke Boston received a visit from Mike Hecht—“Mr. Mike”—capping off a learning unit on outer space. They were thrilled to talk about all they’d learned so far—including showing him their outer space crafts and the rovers they built—and to watch a video simulation of the Perseverance rover landing on Mars.

The students each had an opportunity to ask Mike their questions, including:

“How can they make oxygen so people can breathe?”

“Can the rover move on Mars?”

“How do you drive a rocket ship?”

“Can I say hi to the rover?”

“How freezing is it on Mars?”

“Is there ice on Mars?”

“Can I fly in a rocket ship to outer space?”

“Is there sun on Mars?”

We also asked Clarke preschoolers what they think Mars sounds like. Discover their creative—and sometimes surprising!—answers here.

Clarke educators frequently include STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) concepts in their lessons—and have ample opportunity to do so when discussing the science of hearing and the way hearing technology works. Clarke students learn about how their ears and brains work together, as well as the role their technology plays in this process. “We talk about hearing and listening on a regular basis with our students,” says Clare Gill, a Clarke teacher of the deaf. 

“And Mike’s visit gave us a chance to talk about hearing in a completely different environment. The students were able to apply what they know about hearing technology—and what they’d just learned in our unit on outer space—and engage their imaginations to ‘think big’ about how sound travels on a planet more than 244 million miles away!”

*Dr. Mike Hecht—husband of Dr. Barbara Hecht, director of Clarke Boston—is the associate director for research management at MIT’s Haystack Observatory and the principal investigator of the MOXIE experiment on NASA’s Perseverance rover that landed on Mars in March 2021. In preparation for a day when humans will visit Mars, MOXIE has been successfully demonstrating that it is possible to convert carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere into pure oxygen

For most of 2020, Mike also served as deputy director of the Event Horizon Telescope, the project that recently revealed to the world the first image of a black hole.

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