‘Seven Minutes of Terror’ Await NASA Perseverance on Mars Descent

NASA animation showing the upcoming landing of the Perseverance rover.
Gif: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Gizmodo

In just 57 days, NASA’s Perseverance rover will attempt a landing on Mars. Mission controllers say it’ll be “seven minutes of terror,” as this new depiction demonstrates in dramatic fashion.

Produced by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the digital animation depicts key events during the entry, descent, and landing (EDL) of the Perseverance rover. The video is just over three minutes in length, which isn’t much shorter than the landing phase itself, which should take around seven minutes. Perseverance launched on July 30, and will perform the EDL on Feb. 18, 2021 at 3:30 p.m. EST.

The $2.7 billion rover will land at Jezero crater, the site of a former lake and river delta. Equipped with its many instruments, Perseverance will look for signs of microbial life, study the Martian weather and geology, and collect samples for a future mission to retrieve. The rover will also deploy Ingenuity, a tiny helicopter that’s poised to become the first human-built aircraft to take flight on an alien world.

Of course, Perseverance will have to stick the landing for any of this to happen. Indeed, Mars is notorious for ending missions before they have a chance to start—the ESA’s failed Schiaparelli mission in 2017 being a recent example.

The first stage of the EDL will see the ejection of the cruise stage, which hosts solar panels, radios, and fuel tanks used during the journey to the Red Planet. The descent stage, as Perseverance approaches the atmosphere, will fire small thrusters on its backshell to properly orient the vehicle, and to ensure the heat shield faces forward. The descent stage will then see the rover careen through the thin Martian atmosphere at speeds reaching 12,000 mph (19,312 kph), according to NASA. Should this stage go as planned, the interior of the craft shouldn’t get any hotter than room temperature.

A supersonic parachute will deploy once the descent stage slows to at least 1,000 mph (1,609 kph). NASA will be debuting a new system, the Range Trigger, to determine the most optimal moment for the parachute to deploy, which should occur some 240 seconds after atmospheric entry. The heat shield will then drop away as it will no longer be needed exposing the rover to the Martian atmosphere for the very first time.

Another new piece of technology, called Terrain-Relative Navigation, will use video cameras and maps to choose the safest spot for a landing.

At most, the parachute will slow the vehicle down to around 200 mph (322 kph), requiring powered descent. When Perseverance is 6,900 feet (2,100 meters) above the surface, the rocket powered descent stage will kick in, slowing the craft down to a very manageable 2 mph (3.2 kph). A sky crane will then gently lower the 2,260-pound (1,025-kilogram) rover onto the surface, which it will do using a set of 21-foot-long (6.4-meter-long) cables. The sky crane will cut the cables once it senses a landing, and then zip clear of the target site.

Only then will the real fun begin as the rover will be free to explore the Martian surface. The Perseverance mission is expected to last for two years, but as precedent has shown, it could last for much longer. NASA’s Curiosity rover, for example, landed on Mars in 2012, and it’s still going strong. We’re very much looking forward to the Perseverance mission, but first things first: It must survive those dreaded seven minutes of terror.

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