When it comes to space missions, landing a vehicle on another planet is about as high stakes as it comes. Today, February 18, NASA is going to attempt to land its Mars rover Perseverance and its side-kick, the helicopter Ingenuity, on the surface of the Red Planet – and you can watch the historic event unfold live as it happens.
Landing a spacecraft on another planet is hard. NASA is up against a 40 percent success rate, and is still the only space agency to have successfully landed a mission on Mars (that didn't subsequently die). Can it repeat this success again today? Join us as we bite our nails through the agonizing "7 minutes of terror" until we know for sure Perseverance and Ingenuity have landed safely, kicking off a new generation of Mars exploration.
The most sophisticated rover yet, Perseverance will be integral to our exploration of life on Mars, not only exploring the sights and sounds of the Red Planet but scooping up some soil samples to send home to Earth too. The helicopter Ingenuity is a historic first in that it will be the first object to ever test out flying on Mars. If successful, future drones could be used to scout ahead for astronauts or explore dangerous terrain.
What's the plan?
Launched in July 2020, Perseverance and Ingenuity are due to land inside the 45 kilometer (28 mile) wide Jezero Crater, the chosen landing site not far from its fellow robot inhabitants Curiosity and InSight, at 3:55 pm EST (8:55 pm UTC/GMT) on February 18, 2021.
At 3:38 pm EST (8:38 pm UTC), about 10 minutes before entering the Martian atmosphere, the cruise stage will separate from the shell carrying Perseverance. At 3:48 pm (8:48 pm UTC), Perseverance will enter the atmosphere, kicking off the harrowing entry, descent, and landing phase known as the "7 minutes of terror" when events happen faster than radio signals can reach Earth from Mars – meaning the craft is on its own, and we won't know if it survives until the next signal indicates it's on solid ground. It takes 11 minutes to get a radio signal from Mars, so by the time we find out, it will already be on the ground.
During those 7 minutes, the spacecraft will reach the top of the Martian atmosphere traveling at a speed of 20,000 kilometers per hour (12,500 miles per hour). A heat shield will help protect it and slow its descent. At about 11 kilometers (7 miles) above the surface, at 3:52 pm (8:52 pm UTC), the spacecraft will deploy its 21.5-meter (70.5-foot) parachute. The heat shield will drop away, exposing Perseverance to the Martian atmosphere, which will start snapping away photographs of its new Martian home. This phase ends with a rocket-powered sky crane lowering Perseverance safely to the surface of the Red Planet at 3:55 pm (8:55 pm UTC), where we all heave a huge sigh of relief.
NASA hopes to share the first images about 5 minutes later.
How to watch
NASA is live streaming the whole thing. The NASA TV broadcast from mission control kicks off at 2:15 pm EST (7:15 pm UTC/GMT). You can also follow along live and keep up to date with important moments by following Perseverance on Twitter.
What happens next?
We have a celebratory drink.
Although we should get the first images of what Perseverance can see within a few minutes, it won't be starting its first experiments immediately. The rover will spend its first few days at Jezero trundling about the crater snapping pictures, checking instruments, and updating its software.
The Perseverance team on Earth is hopeful we will get the first low-res video footage in a few days, where it may be possible to piece together some actual landing footage, including audio for the first time.
Armed with cameras, microphones, sophisticated equipment, and a helicopter, Perseverance is going to reveal Mars's secrets as nothing has before, potentially finding out once and for all if Mars is our great hope of finding life outside of Earth – assuming it lands successfully, that is. No pressure, Perseverance, no pressure.