A space rover will go through “seven minutes of terror” before it finally lands on Mars, experts have warned.
NASA’s Perseverance probe will make its final, self-directed descent on Thursday – but engineers have warned, “Success is never assured.”
Al Chen, head of the descent and landing team at the Space Agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, called it the most critical and dangerous part of the expensive $ 2.7 billion mission.
It will take the six-wheeled rover seven minutes to descend from the top of the Martian atmosphere to the surface of the planet.
He said, “Success is never assured. And that’s especially true when we’re trying to land the largest, heaviest, most complicated rover we’ve ever built in the most dangerous spot we’ve ever tried to land.”
Success depends on a complex sequence of events that develop smoothly.
This includes the inflation of a giant supersonic parachute and the use of a jet-powered “sky crane” that descends to a safe landing site and hovers above the surface.
The crane lowers the rover on a tether to the ground.
Mr. Chen added, “Perseverance must do all of this on its own.
“We can’t change it during this time.”
Endurance is NASA’s fifth Mars rover, and this trip follows nearly 20 excursions to the planet dating back to the 1965 Mariner 4 flyby.
Scientists hope that this will create the conditions to finally show whether life existed beyond Earth and eventually pave the way for human missions to the Red Planet.
If everything goes according to plan, the NASA team will receive a follow-up radio signal shortly before 9:00 p.m. GMT confirming that the probe has landed on Martian soil at the edge of an old, long-disappeared river delta and seabed.
This week marks the final leg of a seven-month journey from Earth over 293 million miles.
Advanced tolls will drill samples from Martian rocks and seal them in tubes so that they can eventually be returned to Earth for further analysis. These are the first such samples ever collected by humanity from the surface of another planet.
Two future missions to retrieve these samples and return them to Earth are being planned by NASA in collaboration with the European Space Agency.
Perseverance has a small drone helicopter that is testing a surface-to-surface flight on another world for the first time.
The mission’s first hurdle is to get the rover intact to the bottom of Jerezo Crater, a 45-kilometer-wide area that scientists believe is home to a rich treasure trove of fossil microorganisms.
Project scientist Ken Farley said, “It’s a spectacular landing site.”