Video: ‘Seven minutes of terror’

By
updated 7/16/2012 6:48:26 PM ET 2012-07-16T22:48:26

NASA is just 20 days away from landing a car-size rover on Mars, but mission managers might have to wait a little longer than anticipated to learn whether the challenging touchdown succeeds or not.

NASA's 1-ton Curiosity rover, the centerpiece of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission, is slated to land on the Martian surface on the night of Aug. 5 to investigate whether the planet is, or ever was, capable of harboring past or present microbial life. But first, the rover will have to survive a harrowing journey through the Red Planet's atmosphere — a process that has been nicknamed the "seven minutes of terror."

"[T]he Curiosity landing is the hardest NASA robotic mission ever attempted in the history of exploration of Mars, or any of our robot exploration," John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said in a news briefing Monday at the agency's headquarters in Washington, D.C. "This is risky business."

  1. Space news from NBCNews.com
    1. KARE
      Teen's space mission fueled by social media

      Science editor Alan Boyle's blog: "Astronaut Abby" is at the controls of a social-media machine that is launching the 15-year-old from Minnesota to Kazakhstan this month for the liftoff of the International Space Station's next crew.

    2. Buzz Aldrin's vision for journey to Mars
    3. Giant black hole may be cooking up meals
    4. Watch a 'ring of fire' solar eclipse online

And a glitch in an aging Mars orbiter may compromise Earth's communications with Curiosity slightly, forcing the mission team to wait a few more agonizing minutes to learn the fate of their $2.5 billion rover. [ How Curiosity's Nail-Biting Landing Works (Pictures) ]

An unprecedented landing
Since Curiosity is too large for an airbag-assisted landing, NASA is using a complex and unprecedented sky crane system to safely lower the rover onto the surface of the Red Planet. This sequence of events — called entry, descent and landing, or EDL — will last approximately seven minutes.

"Those seven minutes are the most challenging part of this entire mission," said Pete Theisinger, MSL project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "For the landing to succeed, hundreds of events will need to go right, many with split-second timing and all controlled autonomously by the spacecraft."

As Curiosity streaks through the Martian atmosphere, the spacecraft must slow itself from roughly 13,200 mph to zero in only seven minutes. The rocket-powered sky crane, which acts similar to a backpack with three nylon cords attached, will help to control the rover's descent.

"EDL is like a game of dominoes," said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters. "With the release of the crew stage, that's the first domino that's been flicked. If one of them is out of place, it's very likely that the last domino does not fall, which means MSL Curiosity may hit the ground harder than we'd like it to."

Questions about communications
To add even more drama to the situation, Curiosity's mission managers may have to wait several minutes before finding out whether the rover survived its landing.

In early June, a NASA spacecraft in orbit around the Red Planet, called Mars Odyssey, suffered a malfunction on one of its reaction wheels, an instrument that helps control the probe's attitude in space.  

"Odyssey looks like it may not be where we expect it to be," McCuistion said.

The glitch does not pose a risk to Curiosity's impending arrival at the Red Planet, officials said. But Mars Odyssey's original orbit would have given it a complete view of Curiosity's landing, so the probe had been pegged to act as an orbiting outpost to relay communications and data back to mission managers on Earth.

With Odyssey in the picture, mission managers may be able to confirm Curiosity's touchdown by 10:31 p.m. PT on Aug. 5 (1:31 a.m. ET Aug. 6). Without Odyssey, however, mission controllers may not know the outcome of the landing maneuver until 10:35 p.m. PT or later.

Engineers are currently assessing whether they can move Odyssey to prevent any significant communications delays, but a final decision has yet to be made.

Still, all is not lost on the communications front. NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the European Space Agency's Mars Express will be monitoring Curiosity from above as it attempts to land on Mars. Both probes, however, will not have a full view of the event, and both are only able to collect and store information before sending it to Earth three to four hours later.

"It's simply how the data gets returned to us, and how timely that data is," McCuistion said.

In the meantime, mission controllers are awaiting Curiosity's landing with a mix of nerves and excitement, NASA officials said.

"I think the team feels that they've done everything they can do to make this successful," Theisinger said. "That being said, success is not assured. Any one of different kinds of problems could end up in end-of-mission, but I think the team is very positive. Morale is good."

Follow Denise Chow on Twitter @denisechow or SPACE.com @Spacedotcom. We're also on Facebook and Google+ .

© 2013 Space.com. All rights reserved. More from Space.com.

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

loading photos...
  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments