Last November, the team at NASA launched its Mars Space Laboratory, known as Curiosity, on a long journey through space. On August 6th, the rover will touch down in a crater on Mars and begin its study of climate, geology, and any potential signs of life on the red planet. Although this landing is the culmination of eight months in space, the success of the mission will boil down to what happens in just seven minutes—what NASA refers to as the "7 Minutes of Terror."
It will take seven minutes for Curiosity, which has its own Twitter account, to descend from the top of Mars’ atmosphere down to the surface. What will transpire in that time is a marvel of modern ingenuity, which is recounted in suspense-movie-worthy detail in the video above. Because it takes 14 minutes or so for the signal from a space craft to make it to Earth (yeah, that’s how far away Mars is from us), for seven long minutes, NASA will have no idea whether the rover landed or not.
If all goes according to plan, the entry, descent, and landing process (EDL) will be aided along by a supersonic parachute, which oddly enough is not the name of a Smashing Pumpkins song. In order to avoid burying Curiosity in a propulsion-created dust cloud, something called the skycrane maneuver will be performed next. To make matters even more tense, if one part of EDL isn’t executed perfectly (by computer), then nothing will work. And you thought putting up Christmas lights required precision!
Watch a real-time visualization of the Curiosity’s voyage through space with NASA’s 3-D interactive Eyes on the Solar System here.