‘Seven minutes of terror’: Nasa Perseverance rover’s landing on Mars explained

WION Web Team
New York, New York, United States of America Published: Feb 14, 2021, 05:16 PM(IST)

Seven minutes of terror Photograph:( Twitter )

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The entry, descent, and landing phase of the Mars mission are scheduled for February 18. 

Nasa’s Perseverance rover is soon going to attempt landing in the most challenging site ever targetted on Mars after travelling for nearly seven months. 

The Perseverance rover, built at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California, lifted off from Kennedy Space Center on July 30, 2020. The entry, descent, and landing phase of the Mars mission are scheduled for February 18. 

The six-wheeled rover is expected to take seven minutes to descend from the top of the Martian atmosphere to the planet's surface in less time than the 11-minute-plus radio transmission to Earth. Thus, Thursday's final, self-guided descent of the rover spacecraft is set to occur during a white-knuckled interval that JPL engineers affectionately refer to as the "seven minutes of terror."

Nasa, to this end, shared a video on Friday explaining the challenges of the mission.

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SEVEN MINUTES OF TERROR

When Perseverance hits the final stretch, it is set to emit a radio alert as it streaks into the thin Martian atmosphere.

By the time that signal reaches mission managers some 127 million miles (204 million km) away at the JPL near Los Angeles, Perseverance will already have landed on the Red Planet - hopefully in one piece.

Perseverance may set the stage for scientists to conclusively show whether life has existed beyond Earth, while paving the way for eventual human missions to the fourth planet from the sun. A safe landing, as always, comes first.

Success will hinge on a complex sequence of events unfolding without a hitch - from inflation of a giant, supersonic parachute to deployment of a jet-powered "sky crane" that will descend to a safe landing spot and hover above the surface while lowering the rover to the ground on a tether.

If all goes as planned, Nasa's team would receive a follow-up radio signal shortly before 1 pm. Pacific time confirming that Perseverance landed on Martian soil at the edge of an ancient, long-vanished river delta and lake bed.

SCIENCE ON THE SURFACE

From there, the nuclear battery-powered rover, roughly the size of a small SUV, will embark on the primary objective of its two-year mission - engaging a complex suite of instruments in the search for signs of microbial life that may have flourished on Mars billions of years ago.

Advanced power tools will drill samples from Martian rock and seal them into cigar-sized tubes for eventual return to Earth for further analysis - the first such specimens ever collected by humankind from the surface of another planet.

Two future missions to retrieve those samples and fly them back to Earth are in the planning stages by NASA, in collaboration with the European Space Agency.

Perseverance, the fifth and by far most sophisticated rover vehicle Nasa has sent to Mars since Sojourner in 1997, also incorporates several pioneering features not directly related to astrobiology.

The mission's first hurdle after a 293-million-mile (472-million-km) flight from Earth is delivering the rover intact to the floor of Jerezo Crater, a 28-mile-wide (45-km-wide) expanse that scientists believe may harbor a rich trove of fossilised microorganisms.

The descent sequence, an upgrade from NASA's last rover mission in 2012, begins as Perseverance, encased in a protective shell, pierces the Martian atmosphere at 12,000 miles per hour (19,300 km per hour), nearly 16 times the speed of sound on Earth.

After a parachute deployment to slow its plunge, the descent capsule's heat shield is set to fall away to release a jet-propelled "sky crane" hovercraft with the rover attached to its belly.

Once the parachute is jettisoned, the sky crane's jet thrusters are set to immediately fire, slowing its descent to walking speed as it nears the crater floor and self-navigates to a smooth landing site, steering clear of boulders, cliffs and sand dunes.

Hovering over the surface, the sky crane is due to lower Perseverance on nylon tethers, sever the chords when the rover's wheels reach the surface, then fly off to crash a safe distance away.

Should everything work, deputy project manager Matthew Wallace said, post-landing exuberance would be on full display at JPL despite COVID-19 safety protocols that have kept close contacts within mission control to a minimum.

(with inputs)

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