In the video above, NASA engineers explain the extremely precise calculations governing the landing of Curiosity, the seventh Mars Rover since the failed Soviet Mars 2 and 3 missions in 1971. Launched in November of 2011, Curiosity is scheduled to touch down in Gale Crater at exactly 10:31PM Pacific time, this August 5th. Using dramatic computer-generated imagery, the video shows the rover’s approach as it breaches the atmosphere and hurtles toward the surface of the planet in several complicated stages, a descent that takes exactly seven minutes. The engineers call this span of time “seven minutes of terror”; since the signal delay from the spacecraft to earth is fourteen minutes, NASA engineers must wait an additional seven minutes after its entry to learn whether the entirely-computer-guided craft has made it safely to the surface or crashed and burned. Since it’s speeding down from the upper atmosphere at 13,000 miles an hour and heating up to 1600 degrees, their fears are certainly warranted. And fear may be a symbolically appropriate emotional response to a planet named for the ancient god of war, with moons named Phobos and Diemos—“fear” and “terror,” respectively.
The Mars program has had several false starts and a history very much rooted in the Cold War space race. During the the 1960s, the U.S. and USSR sent competing flyby and orbiter missions to the red planet, but it wasn’t until July 4, 1997 that NASA was able to land a functioning rover, the Pathfinder, on the surface. A British-led attempt to land another rover, Beagle 2, was a failure, but NASA successfully landed Spirit in January, 2004. Sadly, Spirit became mired in the thick sand of the planet’s surface and could not be freed. Spirit’s twin, Opportunity, made a successful landing two weeks later and has continued to operate without serious incident, save periods of downtime over the Mars winter, when its solar panels cannot collect enough sunlight to power it. Intended to find signs of water on the planet, Opportunity has made discoveries that provide clues to the geological history of Mars. After its ninth year of work, NASA’s only functioning rover is beginning to show its age. NASA engineers hope the S.U.V.-sized Curiosity will survive its ordeal and continue the work of its predecessors, seeking more signs of water, and maybe finding signs of life.
J. David Jones is currently a doctoral student in English at Fordham University and a co-founder and former managing editor of Guernica / A Magazine of Arts and Politics.