Seven Minutes of Terror & Peanuts

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Tomorrow (Thursday, February 18) at 3:55 EST, 12:55 PST, the Mars Rover Perseverance (also known as Mars 2020) will attempt a landing on Mars. Since the day I arrived at JPL, all the talk was about this rover. It was built across the street from my office. I performed audits at suppliers producing hardware for this mission, and we have been eagerly anticipating this landing since the launch last July. While I spend little time on each project, Persey is probably the mission I have had the most touch time since I came to JPL. Granted, it isn’t nearly as much as the thousands who put seven years of their lives to make this mission come true, but it is still exciting to think we are near the end.

I did a blog a couple years ago about the mission:

https://bearfeed.net/2019/06/19/mars-2020-is-coming/

While we landed Curiosity with nearly the same platform and design, the nerves are high. The landing tomorrow will come with what became known as the Seven Minutes of Terror. Landing this rover is incredibly hard. For starters, Mars has an atmosphere, but its really thin. It is thick enough that unless you get the angle right with the right heat shield, the mission will burn up. So there is a heat shield to take the lander from its cruise speed of 24,000 mph to around 900 mph. The heat shield won’t do much more to slow things down, so there are parachutes. Again, the atmosphere is thin, so the parachutes can only get the lander down to 200 mph, so there is thrusters to lower the decent rate to 2 mph. However, the thrusters will stir up so much dust that it could destroy the instruments. So, the rover is actually dropped from a sky crane as it nears the surface, the wire holding the rover is cut, the thrusters are released and the rover is landed.

The whole process from 24,000 mph to sitting on the red planet will take seven minutes. It takes fourteen minutes for the signal from Mars to reach Earth. So, when we hear that the mission has started the landing sequence, it would have been over for at least seven minutes before.

So, why call it seven minutes of terror? Because, while we did it once, we were sweating bullets then as much as now. For instance, when Curiosity was launched, the software for the landing wasn’t on board. They uploaded it when it was in route. Rumor is, the same happened this time. Rumor is, there is a lot of things to be worried out. Until word comes back that we have six wheels on ground, we are all terrorized.

How do we cope? Peanuts. In the 1960s, JPL was building and launching the Ranger missions. Ranger 1 thru Ranger 6 failed. One of the main engineers, thought that folks were getting too skittish, so he brought peanuts to the launch of Ranger 7 to share with his collogues. Ranger 7 was not only a success, it was flawless. Since then, peanuts have been in the room for every JPL launch, and if you tune you are bound to see a few jars sitting around.

As nervous as we are, this is also really exciting. I mean, I worked for companies before that were well known by the public, but let’s just say they weren’t looked upon kindly. The Empire State Building is lit up red for this landing. Piccadilly Square in London is showing a landing countdown. Heck, even Krispy Kreme has a Mars donut this week. I see all this and I say “this is my job, you are celebrating my job, how cool is that.”

I encourage all of you to tune in and watch what they can show you. The landing will be on NASA TV and on YouTube. It will start at 2:!5 PM EST (11:15 AM PST). And as long as the seven minutes don’t become a terror, it will make history.

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