Its speed depends on whether the sound is high-pitched or low-pitched
On Mars, the speed of sound depends on its pitch.
All sound travels slower through Mars’ air compared with Earth’s. But the higher-pitched clacks of a laser zapping rocks travels slightly faster in the thin Martian atmosphere than the lower-pitched hum of the Ingenuity helicopter, researchers report April 1 in Nature.
These sound speed measurements from NASA’s Perseverance rover are part of a broader effort to monitor minute-by-minute changes in atmospheric pressure and temperature, like during wind gusts, on the Red Planet.
“The wind is the sound of science for us,” says astrophysicist Baptiste Chide of Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.
To listen to the wind, Perseverance carries two microphones. One was meant to record audio during the mission’s complex entry, descent and landing, and while it didn’t work as hoped, it is now turned on occasionally to listen to the rover’s vitals (SN: 2/22/21; SN: 2/17/21). The other microphone is part of the rover’s SuperCam instrument, a mast-mounted mishmash of cameras and other sensors used to understand the properties of materials on the planet’s surface.
But these microphones also pick up other sounds, such as those made by the rover itself as its wheels crunch the surface, and by Perseverance’s flying companion, the robotic helicopter Ingenuity. The SuperCam instrument, for example, has a laser, which Perseverance fires at interesting rocks for further analysis (SN: 7/28/20). The microphone on SuperCam captures sounds from those laser shots, which helps researchers learn about the hardness of the target material, says planetary scientist Naomi Murdoch of the Institut Supérieur de l’Aéronautique et de l’Espace in Toulouse, France.
Murdoch, Chide and their colleagues listened to the laser’s clack-clack when zapping rocks. (“It doesn’t do, really, ‘pew pew,’” Murdoch says). When the laser hits a target, that blast creates a sound wave. Because scientists know when the laser fires and how far away a target is, they can measure the speed at which that sound wave travels through the air toward the SuperCam microphone..