Years of meticulous planning and 10 months of waiting have brought NASA to a nail-biting moment. The space agency’s Phoenix Lander will reach Mars by the end of the month, and before it can start looking for water on the red planet, the $420 million robot needs to land safely.
“Approximately 14 minutes before touchdown, the vehicle separates from its cruise stage,” Barry Goldstein, Phoenix project manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said yesterday during a press conference. “At this point we lose communication from the vehicle.”
Then the lander will blaze into the planet’s atmosphere, reaching speeds of 12,600 miles per hour. (This is the point in movies when the craft looks like it has caught fire.) NASA engineers call this the “seven minutes of terror.”
Passing out of the upper atmosphere, the Phoenix releases a parachute to slow the plummet and drifts 70 miles to the surface.
“This is not a trip to grandma’s house. Putting a spacecraft safely on Mars is hard and risky,” said Ed Weiler, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “Internationally, fewer than half the attempts have succeeded.”
If the Phoenix land in one piece, the bot will unfurl its legs, sensors, and shovels and begin its mission in Mars’ north pole.