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How NASA's Mars Perseverance rover will make the most difficult landing ever attempted on the red planet

NASA's Perseverance rover completes Mars landing
NASA's Perseverance rover completes ambitious Mars landing 01:55

Currently hurtling through space, rapidly approaching its destination, NASA's Perseverance rover will make the most difficult landing ever attempted on Mars on Thursday, before it begins its hunt for ancient life. 

When it arrives Thursday afternoon, Perseverance will enter Mars' atmosphere at over 12,000 miles per hour, streaking across the Martian sky like a meteor for seven nail-biting minutes before finally touching down in the Jezero Crater, a site that the Curiosity rover was technologically incapable of reaching. 

NASA scientists call it the "seven minutes of terror."

This illustration shows the events that occur in the final minutes of the nearly seven-month journey that NASA's Perseverance rover takes to Mars. Hundreds of critical events must execute perfectly and exactly on time for the rover to land on Mars safely on Feb. 18, 2021.  NASA/JPL-Caltech

The rover must survive both intense heat comparable to the sun's surface and deceleration as it descends, while also trying to land in the correct place. A parachute 70 feet in diameter will help slow it down, as it attempts to find its way to the crater.

Then, a "skycrane," which was also used by Curiosity, will allow Perseverance to lower itself onto the surface. When the rover finally lands, it will touch down on its wheels at a speed slower than humans walk. 

"I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that entry, descent and landing (EDL) is the most critical and most dangerous part of the mission," Allen Chen, the EDL lead, said this week during a news conference. "Success is never assured, and that's especially true when we're trying to land the biggest, heaviest and most complicated rover we've ever built to the most dangerous site we've ever attempted to land on." 

And Perseverance has to do this all on its own. It takes radio signals more than 11 minutes to get back to Earth, so the entirety of the EDL will be done without the help of mission control. 

With its heat shield facing the planet, NASA's Perseverance rover begins its descent through the Martian atmosphere in this illustration. NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA chose the Jezero Crater as the landing site because scientists believe, based on orbital photographs of the region, that it was once filled with water, home to an ancient river delta. The water is long gone, but lakebed deposits make the crater an ideal place to investigate for signs of ancient life.

The crater is filled with steep cliffs, sand, boulders and impact craters, all of which make the landing more difficult. When Perseverance touches down, it must do so near the remnants of the delta, where traces of microbial organism could have settled. 

"Jezero Crater is a great place, a magnificent place for science. But when I look at it from a landing perspective, I see danger," Chen said. "It's a formidable challenge." 

The Perseverance rover, which launched last July, is the biggest vehicle NASA has ever attempted to land on Mars, weighing over a metric ton and carrying 50% more science and technology than Curiosity, which landed in 2012. Two new technologies will help Perseverance land safely — a range trigger, which allows the rover to decide when to deploy the parachute, and terrain relative navigation, which essentially gives the rover eyes and a map, so it can check to make sure it lands in the right place. 

"If it wasn't for range trigger and terrain relative navigation, we just could not go to Jezero," Chen said.

An illustration of NASA's Perseverance rover landing safely on Mars. NASA/JPL-Caltech

The coronavirus pandemic has only further complicated the landing. 

"We hoped that the situation on our world with respect to COVID would have improved since launch. It has not, and that has meant that we've needed to be flexible and adapt to keep working safely and effectively," said Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate. "Regardless of everything that has happened due to COVID, it is the constant innovation, dedication and above else  unity of this team that has allowed work on the Perseverance rover to continue in a safe manner."

Perseverance is carrying a ton of cool, new technology, including a tiny helicopter named Ingenuity and the necessary instruments to collect samples for future study on Earth. For the first time, we'll also be able to see and hear what it's like to land on another planet, thanks to a new camera and microphone system. 

These new and more precise EDL technologies will help enable human exploration of the red planet in the future, scientists said.

NASA will be live streaming the historic event on its website on Thursday, beginning at 2:15 p.m. ET.

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