Seven Minutes of Terror
I have never really paid close attention to space, space travel, space missions, etc. It just isn’t something that sparks anything for me (kind of like my love for poetry would send a lot of people running in the other direction). However, I live with someone for whom space has sparked an intense interest (case in point: I just asked a couple of questions for this blog post, and he said something about “JPL has done it numerous times.” I asked what JPL was, and he looked at me with utter scorn and said, “Jet Propulsion Laboratory,” like DUH. (Raise your hand if you also didn’t know what JPL stood for. Thank you). Suffice to say that over the last few years I’ve learned about, paid attention to, and occasionally even looked forward to a launch or event (once I learned about Mark Kelly and how he was the first person to attempt to be in space for an entire year, I was FASCINATED. He was less than a month away from returning to Earth when I first heard about him, so as you can see, I am still behind in my space exploration studies).
That being said, I have known about the upcoming landing of NASA’s Perseverance Rover from when it launched, about 7 months ago. It’s probably because of the pandemic, and me not having much else to do except read absolutely anything I could get my hands on – books, magazines, “trending” topics on the internet (all of that, plus the aforementioned person who most likely has been talking about Perseverance for years now). And TODAY, February 18, the rover – and the NASA engineers and all of the people who will avidly be paying attention – will experience “7 minutes of terror” (at approximately 3:55pm EST) as the rover catapults its way through the Mars atmosphere to attempt to land.
In that seven minutes, the Perseverance will enter the Mars atmosphere at 12,100 mph. In just the first 70 seconds, the outer covering (the “aeroshell”) will reach its maximum temperature of 2,372 degrees F. In the next few minutes, a parachute will deploy, and the heat shield will be ejected. After that, a “Skycrane”, descending at 1.6 mph and powered by 8 throttleable retrorockets, will lower the rover onto Mars. In those 7 minutes, the rover will slow from 12,100 mph to just 1.5 mph. Also, due to the time delay in communication transmission, it takes about 11 minutes and 22 seconds for any information sent from Perseverance to reach NASA. In other words, Perseverance will have (hopefully) been successfully landed a full 4 minutes before NASA gets word. That seems more like 15 minutes of terror for NASA…
What will Perseverance do, once it has (again, hopefully) landed on Mars? Its main job is to seek signs of ancient life and collect samples of rock and regolith (broken rock and soil) for possible return to earth, as well as test technologies that could help humans survive on Mars. But before I go further, I should include some brief history. But honestly, the history of failed and successful attempts to reach Mars is extensive, and I couldn’t do it justice in a 3-minute-read blog post. If you’re interested, check out this article from space.com:
Now that we have the facts, what I was curious about is what, exactly, is it about Perseverance that has space-geeks so excited? Well, apparently, quite a few things. For one, Perseverance has 2 microphones and multiple cameras, which means that for the first time we might actually be able to hear what the surface of Mars sounds like; and have more (and higher resolution) images. It has a “helicopter" (more like a drone) that will allow it to take photos of areas that Perseverance can’t get to. Perseverance is nuclear powered, as opposed to solar powered, which means it can withstand all the dust storms Mars can throw at it without losing power. (NASA’s previous successful rover, Opportunity, was able to extend its expected life expectancy by FOURTEEN years. Poignantly, as it was overcome by a dust storm that covered its solar panels, its last “words” to NASA were “My battery is low and it’s getting dark.”)
Then there is also the other stuff – the fun stuff. For decades, NASA has been following a tradition called "festooning," adding fun extras to spacecraft and rovers. There are five such “Easter eggs” on Perseverance: there is a plate fixed to the rover using elegant line art depicting Earth, the sun, and Mars, all joined by lines of Morse code reading “Explore as one.” That plate also has 3 microchips carrying 10,932,295 names of people who donated to NSA to have their name included. Also contained in the microchips are 155 essays from students, who made it to the finals of the space agency’s rover-naming contest.
There is also a COVID-19 tribute to healthcare workers who’ve been fighting the pandemic. The rover team wanted to recognize the impact of the year in which the rover launched, and especially those people on the frontlines of the pandemic. So, the team affixed an aluminum plate on the rover's left side showing the caduceus — the image of a serpent wound around a staff that is used as a symbol of medicine in the U.S. — holding up the Earth.
And the last one I’m going to mention is on Earth, and not on Perseverance – Krispy Kreme is offering a Mars donut in honor of the rover for TODAY ONLY. The donut will be filled with chocolate crème, dipped in caramel icing with a red swirl and chocolate cookies crumb on top. Want one? (yes, yes, I do…) Sadly, the closest Krispy Kreme to our library is about 3 hours away in New York City. Road trip, anyone?