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NASA Langley catches its breath after Mars rover touchdown - then gets back to work

Joanne Kimberlin, The Virginian-Pilot on

Published in Science & Technology News

NORFOLK, Va. — A puddle, melted into a chair.

That’s how Henry Wright, a rover project manager at NASA Langley, described his condition after Thursday’s nail-biter touchdown of the Perseverance on Mars.

The local research center was heavily involved in the final challenge of the rover’s 6 1/2-month journey: Getting the complex, car-sized robot on the ground in one functioning piece.

Known as EDL — for entry, descent and landing — it’s the most hazardous point of the mission, when the vehicle that’s carried the rover nearly 300 million miles transforms itself from a spacecraft into something more like a bullet, plunging toward the surface at 12,000 mph.

With roughly half of all Mars shots ending in failure, EDL has been described as “7 minutes of terror” for those like Wright — too fast and far away for joystick control, and so fiery that tracking signals are almost completely blacked out.

After years of work, it’s suddenly just happening. Breaths held and muscles clenched. Hoping against hope that everything you and everyone else did — all the research, modeling, testing, simulations and assembling for this $2.7 billion project — holds up under the extreme violence of hurtling through the Martian atmosphere. That includes a parachute you helped design, a tissue-thin brake that could shred like confetti when it’s deployed — as it must be — at twice the speed of sound.

 

Adding oddness to the stress: The tick-tock you’re sweating through has actually already happened. It takes 11 minutes for any news from Mars to reach Earth. By the time mission control announced the signs of atmospheric entry, the whole thing, in reality, was already over.

But not for you. Not until the blessed words finally come from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California: Tango Delta. Nominal.

Touchdown. All normal.

“Just so many emotions,” Wright said.

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