NASA’s Mars-bound Perseverance rover is about to embark on its highly challenging entry, descent, and landing procedure, otherwise known as “seven minutes of terror.”
“Until we get the data that says we’re on the ground safely, I’m going to be worried that we’re not going to make it,” one member of the team said in a recent NASA video (top) about Thursday’s landing.
That seven-minute time period will be a real nail-biter for the team as the spacecraft will be operating autonomously at that stage, performing a number of maneuvers that require precision timing in the face of extreme speed and temperature changes. And on top of that, it has to find a safe spot to touch down.
“There are many things that have to go right to get Perseverance onto the ground safely,” said Swati Mohan of the Mars 2020 Guidance team.
Protected by its all-important heat shield, the spacecraft carrying Perseverance will come “screaming in to the Martian atmosphere at 12,000 to 13,000 mph,” Mohan’s colleague, Chloe Sackier, explained.
Once the speed of the spacecraft has been sufficiently reduced, it’ll deploy a parachute — described as the biggest supersonic parachute ever sent to another planet — to slow it down further.
While the landing procedure is similar in some ways to the one performed by Curiosity in 2012, Perseverance has been equipped with more advanced technology to help it come down safely in a more challenging landing site that includes cliffs, sand dunes, and boulders. The site, Jezero Crater, is an ancient lake bed, and scientists are confident that it offers the best chance of finding signs of ancient microbial life on the red planet, one of the mission’s key objectives.
As it nears the ground, the spacecraft will deploy one of its new technologies, called Terrain Relative Navigation. This is a kind of autopilot system that’s able to quickly determine the spacecraft’s location so it can select the safest reachable landing target within the boundaries of the crater. NASA says the system will be able to change the rover’s touchdown point by up to 2,000 feet (600 meters).
Once the spacecraft has determined its precise location above the Martian surface, it’ll jettison its back-shell and parachute before firing up eight small rockets to help it steer toward the selected landing site. About 20 meters from the ground, the spacecraft will release Perseverance on cables and lower the rover to the surface.
Assuming the landing procedure goes to plan, Perseverance will then set about searching for signs of ancient life, gathering rock and soil samples for return to Earth at a later date, and collecting data for future human exploration of the faraway planet.
For a more detailed look at what looks set to be a roller-coaster ride of a landing for Perseverance, check out Digital Trends’ in-depth article that includes comments from Gregorio Villar, a systems engineer on the the Entry, Descent, and Landing team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
And here’s all you need to know about how to follow NASA’s coverage of the rover landing this Thursday.