"Seven minutes of terror" as NASA hopes to land rover Perseverance on Mars

For seven minutes NASA's $2.5 billion rover Perseverance will attempt to land itself on an unexplored section of Mars.

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NASA scientists and engineers call it "the seven minutes of terror." The tense 420 seconds of breath-holding suspense as a Mars rover takes control of its own destiny and attempts to autonomously land on the red planet.

The term is named for the time that elapses between the rover's landing capsule entering the Martian atmosphere to touching down on the planet's surface. During that period, the rover relies on a sequence of preprogramed information and not human engineers in NASA's master control.

"It's nerve-wracking," said Matt Wallace, a deputy project manager at NASA. "It's certainly the most complex portion of the mission."

The rover Perseverance is NASA's most ambitious foray into Martian exploration. The roughly $2.5 billion robot is scheduled to blast off from Cape Canaveral, Florida between July 17 and August 5. If all goes according to plan, seven months later it will become the fifth NASA rover to land on Mars. 

This week on 60 Minutes, NASA's Wallace showed correspondent Anderson Cooper around the clean room at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California where Perseverance and the vehicles that will bring it to space were built.

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Anderson Cooper in a NASA clean room

NASA began working on Perseverance nearly eight years ago. It is the first Mars rover equipped with Terrain Relative Navigation. This new technology uses a library of archival orbiter images to help the robot decide where to land.

"As the rover is getting close to landing, it takes a picture and it compares the picture of the scene that it sees as it's descending to [the] map of hazards that it has in its brain," said Katie Stack Morgan, a deputy NASA project scientist for Perseverance. "It can actually divert away from the hazards that we've already identified on the surface."

Orbiter images and previous missions to Mars have taught NASA a lot about the planet's topography. It is littered with hazards, including cliffs, dunes, rock fields and steep slopes.

According to Wallace, during the "seven minutes of terror," Perseverance's entry capsule will be slowed from 12,000 mph to 1,000 mph as it collides with the Martian atmosphere. A 70-foot supersonic parachute and propulsion system will further slow the rover down on its approach to Mars. 

NASA plans to land the rover in Mars' Jezero Crater, which has never been explored before.

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An image of the Jezero crater on Mars JPL

The seven-minute landing process will mark a crucial step in what NASA hopes will be at least a 687-day mission or the equivalent of one Mars' year. 

Perseverance has a robotic arm, 25 cameras, two audio microphones, and seven scientific instruments.  Space fans may notice many similarities to its predecessor Curiosity.

"Mars 2020 is similar to Curiosity in a lot of ways," Katie Stack Morgan told Cooper. "It looks very similar, has some similar instruments, but we have different objectives for this mission. We are the first mission in a potential Mars sample return campaign."

NASA's four stated "Mars 2020" objectives are looking for habitability, seeking biosignatures, caching samples and preparing for humans. 

In order to achieve its goals, Perseverance is equipped with a drill and sterilized tubes that can be used to collect core samples NASA plans to retrieve on a future mission to Mars.

The latest rover also carries a small helicopter. NASA says that if the aircraft is able to fly, it would be the first to do so in another planet's atmosphere. 

As for the rover Curiosity, it continues to explore Mars and send images back to earth, some of which can be seen in Bill Whitaker's 2017, 60 Minutes story below.

Curiosity 13:12

The top video was produced by Keith Zubrow and Sarah Shafer Prediger. It was edited by Sarah Shafer Prediger.

Photos, videos and animations courtesy of NASA, JPL and NASA/JPL/University of Arizona.