NASA scientists brace for Mars landing's ‘seven minutes of terror’
NASA scientists call it “the seven minutes of terror.”
Early Monday morning, at 1:31 Eastern time, a planetary rover will attempt to land safely on Mars.
After completing an eight-month journey from Earth, the U.S. spacecraft will hit the upper Martian atmosphere at a speed of 21,000 kilometres an hour. And in just seven nail-biting minutes it must come to a relatively gentle stop.
It will use a heat shield and a parachute to slow its descent. But for the final few metres, it will rely on a brand new landing system – the hovering “sky crane,” a retro-rocket-equipped backpack that is supposed to gingerly lower the vehicle to the surface using three nylon cables.
If anything goes wrong in this complex, multistage landing, the $2.5-billion mission will end up as smashed bits of space junk on the Red Planet. So scientists at NASA – the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration – have good reason to dread the final moments of the 563-million-kilometre trip to Mars.
During the vehicle’s plunge to the surface, it will transmit a stream of data, and three nearby spacecraft – Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Express – will relay the information to Earth.
The on-board computer must perform each manoeuvre flawlessly because Mars is too far away to permit any direct intervention from Earth.
It will take about 14 minutes for a radio signal from the rover, nicknamed Curiosity, to reach mission-control scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.