It’s not easy to land on Mars and NASA’s latest exploration will all come down to a seven-minute window of precise mathematical execution.
That’s what engineers and researchers at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton said Wednesday during a virtual panel while sharing details, their anticipation and qualms about the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover mission, the agency’s current quest to the Red Planet.
On Thursday afternoon the Mars 2020 Perseverance, with speeds of 12,000 miles an hour, 25 times the speed of sound, will penetrate the Martian atmosphere like a meteor and begin its decent — while the world watches virtually.
It gets dicey after that. The expectation is for the complex apparatus, which will physically transform from an interplanetary spacecraft into a rover, to land on the planet’s Jezero Crater, via a 70-foot parachute at 3:36 p.m., eastern standard time.
For a NASA project which hundreds have prepared for and sweated over calculations in the past decade, with millions of practice tries via computer simulations, the last seven minutes of the mission is what counts — with no room for error.
“It’s known as the seven minutes of terror. We’ve got seven minutes to slow down from 12,000 miles per hour,” said David Way, the Mars 2020 flight mechanics and simulation lead. “What makes it truly terrifying ... this very complex machine that we’ve designed has to work exactly right, and (be) completely autonomously on the very first try. Because in entry descent landing, there are no do overs, no go backs, and there’s no partial credit.”
While NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California has been spearheading the mission, Langley engineers had the assist with doing the math. They have meticulously calculated the path and trajectory, much like what Katherine Johnson did with for NASA missions several decades earlier, Way said. They led development of the aerodynamics and aeroheating databases and have created multiple models to gauge its capabilities in Mars’ toxic environment.
Thermodynamic and aerodynamic researchers at Langley helped developed the heat shields on the rover, while others have been responsible for the testing what they say is a “unique parachute system.”
“First of all, it is very large. It is 21 and a half meters in diameter. That’s like a really, really big tent,” said Juan Cruz, an aerospace engineer and parachute expert. “This very large parachute is deployed at almost twice the speed of sound at about 450 meters per second. That is much faster than we typically deployed parachutes on earth. It is a very, very violent event that needs to be modeled very carefully.”
Cruz added that some tests on the parachute had been conducted at Langley’s Transonic Dynamics Tunnel.
“This was done in 2014, which kind of shows you know, the length, the timeline scale at which these missions come together. From this series of tests, we got new data that allowed us to improve the aerodynamic models for the parachute,” he said.
Once safely landed on Mars’ Jezero Crater and converted into a rover, Perseverance, outfitted with multiple cameras, is there to collect data, as well as rock and soil samples — it’s looking for signs of ancient life.
The 28-mile-wide basin, located in the Martian northern hemisphere, is where scientists believe an ancient river flowed into a lake and deposited sediments in a delta that may have preserved signs of life from a billion year ago, according to NASA Langley’s website.
“We’re going to a very fascinating place, the Jezero Crater, at least for the scientists. For the engineers, that makes it a very scary place for us to land,” Way said. “The whole purpose and the reason we’ve chosen that site is the search for (the) evidence of life on another world ... beyond Earth. We’ve never done that before.”
From landing vehicles named Pathfinder and Sojourner in 1997, to Spirit, Opportunity, Phoenix and Curiosity and others even earlier, NASA has had several successful Mars missions with a goal to bring astronauts to the Red Planet.
“You could also look at all of the rovers and say what they’ve added is distance and range, in addition to all the capabilities,” Henry Wright, a NASA project manager, said. “We added capability. We can go to different places. It’s more about specific science and specific locations and those kinds of things.”
NASA has invested approximately $2.4 billion for the mission, Langley spokesman Joe Atkinson said. The estimate to land and operate the rover is approximately $300 million.
NASA’s Mars Perseverance’s live stream begins at 2:15 p.m. EST and may be viewed at http://nasa.gov/live
Lisa Vernon Sparks, 757-247-4832, email@example.com