A NASA animation reveals the harrowing descent to Mars that the Perseverance rover will attempt on Thursday

Morgan McFall-Johnsen
·4 min read
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A capsule carrying Perseverance will plunge through Mars's atmosphere (left) and a jetpack will fly the rover to a safe landing spot (right). NASA/JPL-Caltech

On Thursday, NASA's newest interplanetary robot will attempt a heart-pounding feat: landing on Mars.

If it reaches Martian ground in one piece, the Perseverance rover will then set about exploring an ancient lake bed called Jezero Crater. When the crater was filled with liquid water billions of years ago, scientists believe it could have nurtured microbial life.

Perseverance will scan rocks and mineral deposits in the area for hints of that potential ancient alien life. It will even gather and store a few rock samples for a future mission to bring back to Earth. The rover also carries a small helicopter that's expected to conduct the first drone flights on another planet.

But only half the spacecraft that humanity has ever tried to land on Mars have succeeded. To beat the odds, NASA has tucked Perseverance inside a protective capsule, equipping it with a supersonic parachute and a jetpack to slow its fall and carry it to safety.

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An artist's illustration shows NASA's Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter on Mars. NASA/JPL-Caltech

On Thursday, the rover and its landing apparatus will have to perfectly execute a series of complex maneuvers to finish a 12,000-mph plummet with a gentle touchdown. The whole thing must happen in a brief time period engineers call the "seven minutes of terror."

Communicating from Earth to Mars involves an 11-minute delay, so NASA mission controllers won't be able to troubleshoot in real-time. By the time they receive the signal that Perseverance's descent has begun, the rover will already be on Mars - dead or alive. The landing system must carry out each step on its own, with impeccable precision.

To illustrate this nail-biting plunge, NASA published a realistic animation of the process, with sound effects to match. It may serve as a preview of actual footage, since NASA has equipped Perseverance with cameras and microphones that should capture the whole thing and eventually beam it back to Earth.

Watch each step of the Perseverance rover's landing

This is how the Mars landing will work, if everything goes right (turn sound on for the full effect):

First, the spacecraft that has carried Perseverance for 300 million miles will release the capsule into the Martian atmosphere. The capsule will plummet to Mars, superheating the material around it to up to 2,370 degrees Fahrenheit. Then it will deploy a 70-foot-wide parachute, slowing its fall to about 150 mph, and drop the "heat shield" panel that plowed through the atmosphere.

This will expose the rover's underside, giving an open view of the ground below. A computer on the rover will begin assessing data from the robot's cameras and comparing it to a detailed map of Jezero Crater in order to calculate where exactly it's flying and find the best place to land.

About a mile above the Martian surface, the capsule will drop the rover, which has a jetpack on its back. The jetpack's engines will fire up and fly Perseverance to its landing spot. There, the jetpack will slowly lower the rover on 25-foot-long nylon cords until its wheels touch the ground.

"I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that entry, descent, and landing is the most critical and most dangerous part of a mission," Allen Chen, who leads that process for Perseverance, said in a recent press briefing.

After playing the video, he added, "just looking at it and thinking about landing really gets the blood flowing for me."

This post has been updated. It was originally published on February 11, 2021 at 5:16 p.m. EST.

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