NASA's Mars Rover Edges Closer Toward '7 Minutes of Terror'

Sharon Gaudin August 3, 2012
NASA's Mars Rover Edges Closer Toward '7 Minutes of Terror'
Engineers will use rockets, a supersonic parachute and a sky crane to land robotic rover.

When NASA's newest and largest robotic rover lands on Mars on Monday morning, it will use a supersonic parachute, a tether and rockets to safely alight 350 million miles from home.

Seven minutes will elapse between the time the spacecraft enters the Martian atmosphere and the time it touches down on the planet's surface. NASA engineers say this will be the seven scariest minutes of the mission.

"Entry, descent and landing is referred to as the 'seven minutes of terror' because we've got literally seven minutes to get from the top of the atmosphere to the surface of Mars, going from 13,000 miles an hour to zero in perfect sequence, perfect choreography and perfect timing, and the computer has to do it all by itself with no help from the ground," said Adam Steltzner, a NASA engineer, in a video interview. "If any one thing doesn't work just right, it's game-over."

After a journey of more than eight months, NASA's SUV-sized robotic rover -- the Mars Science Laboratory, also known as Curiosity -- is set to land at 1:31 a.m. Eastern time on Monday in a 96-mile-wide crater.

The $2.5 billion, nuclear-powered rover will start a two-year mission to help scientists learn if the area has, or ever had, conditions that could support life.

Equipped with 10 scientific instruments, Curiosity has the most advanced payload of scientific gear ever used on the surface of Mars, including chemistry instruments, environmental sensors and radiation monitors. The payload is more than 10 times as massive as those of earlier Mars rovers.

However, before work can begin, Curiosity has to safely make it to the ground. And that is a huge job.