NASA confirms Thursday’s touchdown time for Mars rover
We’re now only hours away from the moment when NASA’s Perseverance rover touches down on Mars.
The space agency’s most advanced rover to date is closing in on the red planet at high speed, and on Thursday, February 18, it will enter a crucial landing phase that will present its toughest challenge yet during its six-and-a-half month journey from Earth.
Known in the space industry as the “seven minutes of terror,” the spacecraft carrying Perseverance will have to perform a series of crucially timed maneuvers while at the same time dealing with extreme speed and temperature changes as it descends to Mars’ Jezero Crater.
NASA engineers have just confirmed all of the timings for the final stages of the spacecraft’s flight, which will be streamed live on NASA TV (embedded at the top of this page).
Commentary for the landing of the Perseverance rover begins at 2:15 p.m. ET/ 11:15 a.m. PT on Thursday, February 18.
Below is a breakdown of the final moments in the lead-up to the Mars landing, as described by NASA.
- Cruise stage separation: The part of the spacecraft that has been flying Perseverance — with NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter attached to its belly — through space will separate from the entry capsule at about 3:38 p.m. ET/12:38 p.m. PT.
- Atmospheric entry: The spacecraft is expected to hit the top of the Martian atmosphere traveling at about 12,100 mph (19,500 kph) at 3:48 p.m. ET/12:48 p.m. PT.
- Peak heating: Friction from the atmosphere will heat up the bottom of the spacecraft to temperatures as high as about 2,370 degrees Fahrenheit (about 1,300 degrees Celsius) at 3:49 p.m. ET/12:49 p.m. PT.
- Parachute deployment: The spacecraft will deploy its parachute at supersonic speed at around 3:52 p.m. ET/12:52 p.m. PT. The exact deployment time is based on the new Range Trigger technology, which improves the precision of the spacecraft’s ability to hit a landing target.
- Heat shield separation: The protective bottom of the entry capsule will detach about 20 seconds after the parachute deployment. This allows the rover to use a radar to determine how far it is from the ground and employ its Terrain Relative Navigation technology to find a safe landing site.
- Backshell separation: The back half of the entry capsule that is fastened to the parachute will separate from the rover and its “jetpack” (known as the descent stage) at 3:54 p.m. ET/12:54 p.m. PT. The jetpack will use retrorockets to slow down and fly to the landing site.
- Touchdown: The spacecraft’s descent stage, using the sky crane maneuver, will lower the rover down to the surface on nylon tethers. The rover is expected to touch down on the surface of Mars at human walking speed (about 1.7 mph, or 2.7 kph) at around 3:55 p.m. ET/12:55 p.m. PT.
Interestingly, due to the vast distance that the signals have to travel from Mars to Earth, the events will actually take place on the red planet 11 minutes, 22 seconds earlier than what’s laid out above.
“The Perseverance team is putting the final touches on the complex choreography required to land in Jezero Crater,” Jennifer Trosper, deputy project manager for the mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said this week. “No Mars landing is guaranteed, but we have been preparing a decade to put this rover’s wheels down on the surface of Mars and get to work.”
Assuming the landing procedure goes according to plan, Perseverance will spend its time searching for signs of ancient life, gathering rock and soil samples for return to Earth, and collecting data for future human exploration of the distant planet, while Ingenuity will become the first aircraft to fly on another planet, mapping the surface of Mars at close range as it does so.