NASA’s rover faces ‘seven minutes of horror’ before landing on Mars

LOS ANGELES, Feb. 14 (Reuters) – When NASA’s Perseverance rover hits Mars, a robotic astrobiology laboratory inside a space capsule, hitting the final leg of the seven-month journey from Earth this week, it’s ready to release a radio warning as it streaks into the thin Martian atmosphere.

By the time that signal reaches mission managers about 127 million miles (204 million km) away at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) near Los Angeles, perseverance will already lie on the Red Planet – hopefully in one piece.

The six-wheeled rover is expected to take seven minutes to descend from the top of the Martian atmosphere to the surface of the planet in less time than the additional 11-minute radio transmission to Earth. So Thursday’s final self-guided rescue of the rover’s spacecraft is expected to take place at a white time that JPL engineers fondly describe as “seven minutes of horror.”

Al Chen, head of the JPL descent and landing team, said this was the most critical and dangerous part of the $ 2.7 billion mission.

“Success is never guaranteed,” Chen told a recent press release. “And that’s especially true when we’re trying to build the largest, heaviest and most complex rover we’ve ever built to the most dangerous site we’ve ever tried to come to. “

Many ride on the result. Building on the findings of nearly 20 U.S. trips to Mars going back to flyby Mariner 4 in 1965, the permanence of the platform can set the stage for scientists to show for sure whether life has being outside the Earth, while at the same time paving the way for the last human missions to the fourth planet from the sun. Come ashore safely, as always, first.

Success embarks on a complex series of events unfolding without a hitch – from super-supersonic parachute inflation to the use of a jet-powered “sky mast” that descends to a safe place on land and goes above the surface while lowering the rover to the floor on a tent.

“Perseverance has to do this on its own,” Chen said. “We can’t help it at this time.”

If all goes according to plan, a NASA team would receive a follow-up radio signal shortly before 1pm Pacific time confirming that Perseverance landed on Martian land at the edge of an ancient river delta that has long since disappeared. and lake beds.


From there, the battery-powered nuclear rover, around the size of a small SUV, embarks on the main goal of its two-year mission – engaging in a complex array of instruments in discovered signs of microbial life that may have flourished on Mars billions of years ago.

Advanced power tools drill samples from Martian rock and seal them into compost-sized pipes for return to Earth for further analysis – the first such samples ever collected by humans from the surface of another planet .

There are two future missions to retrieve these samples and fly them back to Earth at design stages with NASA, in collaboration with the European Space Agency.

Perseverance, the fifth most advanced rover vehicle NASA sent to Mars from Sojourner in 1997, also incorporates a number of advanced features not directly related to astrobiology.

Among them is a small drone helicopter, nicknamed Ingenuity, that will test for the first time surface-to-surface power flight of another world. If successful, the four-pound (1.8-kg) whirlybird could pave the way for low-altitude air exploration at Mars during later missions.

Another test is a device to extract true oxygen from carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere, a device that could be extremely useful for the support of future human life on Mars and for the extraction of out a rocket to fly astronauts home.


The first obstacle to the mission after a 293-million-mile (472-million-km) flight from Earth delivers the rover to the ground floor of Jerezo Crater, an area of ​​28 miles (45-km of width) which scientists believe may be a rich accumulation of fossil microorganisms.

“It’s an amazing landing site,” project scientist Ken Farley told reporters by phone conference.

What makes the crater’s rough terrain – deeply sculpted by distant water streams – so tantalizing as a research site also makes it awesome as a lying area.

The sequel series, updated from NASA’s last rover mission in 2012, begins as Perseverance, encircled in a protective shell, breaks Martian sentiment at 12,000 miles per hour (19,300 km per hour). hours), nearly 16 times the speed of sound on Earth.

After using a parachute to slow his fall, the heat shield of the rescue capsule is about to fall off to release a “sky sky” submarine with the rover attached to its belly.

As soon as the parachute is released, the jet’s mastics instantly catch fire, slowing down its speed to walking speed as it approaches the crater floor and self-directs to a flat lying site, leading clean from boulders, cliffs and sand dunes.

Crossing the surface, the skylight is due to lower durability of nylon strings, remove the strings when the wheels of the rover reach the surface, then fly them to fall at a safe distance away.

If all worked out, project deputy manager Matthew Wallace said post-landing evacuation would be fully demonstrated at JPL despite COVID-19 safety protocols that have maintain close links within as little mission control as possible.

“I don’t think COVID can stop us from jumping up and down and slapping our fists,” said Wallace.

Reporting with Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Edited by Frank McGurty and Will Dunham