It’s been a busy month at the red planet. On Feb. 9, the U.A.E. space agency’s Hope probe entered Mars orbit to begin a mission to expand knowledge of the Martian atmosphere. Just one day later, China’s National Space Administration announced that Tianwen 1—a triple-threat orbiter, lander, and rover—had also successfully pulled into orbit.
But the most spectacular moment of the week comes up on Thursday afternoon, as NASA’s Perseverance rover comes screaming in at high speed for a maneuver known as the “seven minutes of terror.” The one-ton rover will blast into the upper atmosphere traveling at over 13,000 miles per hour using a heat shield both to protect itself and slow down. Then it will deploy a parachute to reduce speed even further. But because Mars’ atmosphere is so thin, even a massive parachute can’t slow the big probe enough. So, a couple of miles off the red ground, the whole system will pop apart and deploy a “Sky Crane” that will use rockets to slow the descent to a crawl while lowering the rover to the Martian soil on ropes. This system already worked once when it safely landed Curiosity on Mars in 2015, but Perseverance is even heavier. It’s going to be a real nail-biter for everyone at NASA.
But the most exciting thing may be Perseverance is packing a whole new set of cameras to send that terror back to Earth with unprecedented detail. The landing is expected to take place around 3:55 PM ET (12:55 PM PT). So grab your popcorn and tune in now!
Less than 2,000 miles. Over 9,400 mph.
Perseverance should be just about ready to drop the cruise stage which carried the engines, solar panels, etc. that provided control between Earth orbit and Mars. All of this is happening automatically, since speed of light keeps NASA from being able to manually direct the spacecraft.
Inside 1,000 miles. 10,400mph. Cruise stage separation coming up.
Cruise stage has separated. Perseverance has reoriented itself to direct the heat shield toward the atmosphere. As the cruise stage was drifting away from the landing craft, it passed through the radio signal, making a momentary blip between NASA and the spacecraft.
500 miles up. 11,200 mph. Entry into atmosphere in about 5 minutes.
The signal from Perseverance will hand off to the Mars Orbiter shortly. From then on, NASA will get the data relayed that way.
Mars Orbiters is now relaying data as Perseverance slams into atmosphere.
Preservice has slowed down from over 12,000mph to around 1,000 mph. The supersonic parachute will be deployed shortly.
Heat shield off. Parachute out.
Chute popped. Landing continuing under rocket power.
Sky crane maneuver underway.
TOUCHDOWN! Lots of happy NASA and JPL people.
Awaiting first images.
Low res images from the engineering camera now coming through. Signal from rover to Mars Orbiter good. All is well.
Expect higher res images, and the video / sound of landing later today as the more detailed data gets relayed.
The surface operations team now has a job for the next Mars year!
While other rovers have occasionally looked for signs of life on Mars, that’s the main task for Perseverance. With hugely improved cameras, a whole suite of new instruments, and a system for not just taking rock samples but storing them away for later (possible) return to Earth, Perseverance is ready to bring back images that blow away everything that’s come from its sturdy and long-lived predecessors. In addition, Perseverance is also packing a new set of microphones that will not only return sounds from the planet’s surface, but the sounds of the landing itself. However, there is a little bit of a caveat: The best images and sounds from the landing can’t be sent back until after the landing because of bandwidth constraints on sending data back from so far away. That means that to get really good video, images, and sounds of the landing, Perseverance will have to survive the landing.
And there’s also an exciting hitchhiker on board—Ingenuity, the Mars helicopter. Ingenuity is facing a tremendous challenge as the lightweight drone attempts to fly in Mars’ extremely thin atmosphere (though it won’t actually be the first flying probe on another planet, as the Soviet Union floated two balloons over Venus). The purpose of Ingenuity is, more or less, to see if it works. It can take images, but it’s really more of a test bed for designing future Mars fliers. Think of it as the plucky little Sojourner of space drones.
NASA’s live broadcast of the event has already started, with experts reviewing what to expect and missions scientists white-knuckling their way toward that crucial landing. Even though NASA pulled this off once before with Curiosity, landing on Mars is difficult. A perfect repeat performance is absolutely not a guarantee.
Live streaming from NASA
What to expect from the “seven minutes of terror”
Ingenuity, the Mars Helicopter
And if you’re wondering about the weather today on Mars, Curiosity currently gives the temperature as a high of 3°F and a low of -99°F. Even though Perseverance won’t be landing at the same spot, it’s safe to say that it will be colder than Texas.
Perseverance just passed 5000 miles out, traveling at 7,900 mph.
Now inside 4,000 miles and moving at 8,200 mph.
Now less than 3,000 miles to go, and traveling at 8,700 mph.