NASA’s Perseverance rover is about to take on the challenge it was built for. After travelling over 466 million kilometres, the Perseverance will attempt to land on Mars early tomorrow morning. Before it can land successfully, however, it must survive what is called the ‘seven minutes of terror’.
What is Perseverance’s mission?
NASA first launched the Perseverance back in July. Its mission is to gain a better understanding of the geology of Mars and to seek signs of ancient life. The mission is also the first to gather rock and soil samples from the surface of Mars that can then be returned to Earth in a future mission.
The Perseverance will spend one Mars year, aka two Earth years, exploring the red planet. It is set to touch down in Mars’ Jezero crater, which scientists believe was once flooded with water and could hold promising signs of past microbial life on Mars.
What are the seven minutes of terror?
Landing on Mars is one of the trickiest aspects of the journey.
NASA’s deputy project manager for Perseverance, Matt Wallace, told the BBC “this is one of the most difficult manoeuvres we do in the space business. Almost 50% of the spacecraft sent to the surface of Mars have failed.”
This landing sequence takes seven minutes and there is no margin for error. The rover needs to slow down from a speed of approximately 19,500 km/h to zero.
Mars’ thinner atmosphere makes it significantly more difficult for a spacecraft to slow down. This requires the Perseverance to make use of multiple braking methods in order to land without incident.
To start with the Perseverance rover along with its entry capsule will separate from the main spacecraft. As it enters Mars’ atmosphere the bottom of the entry capsule will heat up to approximately 1300 degrees Celsius.
The spacecraft will then deploy its parachute at an exact time to be determined by its Range Trigger technology. This new tech helps the spacecraft to land more precisely at its target location.
Following the parachute deployment, the heat shield will detach. The rover’s radar navigation can then be used to determine how far it is from the ground and help to find a safe landing site.
The part of the entry capsule attached to the parachute will then separate from the rover and its jetpack will be activated. The jetpack uses rockets to further slow down the descent and manoeuvre the rover to the landing site.
The rover will then perform a sky crane manoeuvre, which essentially uses a set of nylon cables to lower the rover until it touches down. Once it hits the surface the cables will be severed. All these manoeuvres need to take place perfectly for a successful landing and there’s plenty of unpredictable factors that can cause it to go wrong.
Another scary fact, there’s a 12-minute delay between the rover and Earth. This means by the time a signal has been sent to NASA detailing how the landing is going, it will already have ended on Mars.
How to watch the Perseverance landing
The Perseverance landing is set to be a big moment in space history. Given we live in the digital age, viewers can follow along with the Perseverance and watch its landing live at home.
The landing will take place on the 18th of February, which is Friday, February 19 in Australia. Coverage will begin around 1.5 hours earlier but these are the expected times Aussies can catch the landing:
- 7:55 am AEDT
- 6:55 am AEST
- 6:25 am ACST
- 4:55 am AWST
If Perseverance lands successfully on Mars it will be only the fifth rover to ever do so.