For the past seven months, NASA’s newest Mars rover has been closing in on its final destination. As Perseverance eats up the distance and heads for the point in space that Mars will occupy on February 18, 2021, the rover has been more or less idle. Tucked safely into its aeroshell, we’ve heard little from the lonely space traveler lately, except for a single audio clip of the whirring of its cooling pumps.
Its placid journey across interplanetary space stands in marked contrast to what lies just ahead of it. Like its cousin and predecessor Curiosity, Perseverance has to successfully negotiate a gauntlet of orbital and aerodynamic challenges, and do so without any human intervention. NASA mission planners call it the Seven Minutes of Terror, since the whole process will take just over 400 seconds from the time it encounters the first wisps of the Martian atmosphere to when the rover is safely on the ground within Jezero Crater.
For that to happen, and for the two-billion-dollar mission to even have a chance at fulfilling its primary objective of searching for signs of ancient Martian life, every system on the spacecraft has to operate perfectly. It’s a complicated, high-energy ballet with high stakes, so it’s worth taking a look at the Seven Minutes of Terror, and what exactly will be happening, in detail.