Nasa is holding its breath as it prepares for its latest mission to Mars, the landing of its big robot rover ‘Curiosity’.
The touchdown, expected sometime on Monday, is considered to be so risky, it has been described as ‘‘seven minutes of terror’‘.
During that short time frame, Curiosity will slow down from an estimated 20,000 kilometres per hour to a complete standstill on Mars, using a parachute, heat shield and rockets.
NASA’s Lead Rover Driver Matt Heverly said: “We are landing a ton, a ton of vehicle – it weighs 900kg – on the surface of another planet, hundreds of millions of miles away. That is a really hard thing to do.”
The NASA engineer remains hopeful he will hit the bulls-eye despite all the potential pitfalls.
“You can have a bad day on Mars. You can get a wind gust that makes it so that you can’t land on the surface. And there are things outside of your control. We’ve done everything we can do and we’ve tested an amazing amount, all the different subsystems. But we’ve never been able to test all of them coming together in Mars gravity, and in an atmosphere as thin as Mars,” Heverly added.
Curiosity is the biggest and most sophisticated Mars rover yet. The size of a small car, the one ton monster will attempt to harvest microbes and send back other vital data and images from the red planet.
For the moment NASA is trying not to think about failure, despite the vast distance making real-time intervention impossible.