Olympic feats have ruled the press over the last week, but a scientific feat may be the one stealing headlines tomorrow. The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal are among just a few news outlets previewing the upcoming "seven minutes of terror"—that's how NASA officials are describing the day's planned Mars landing. The spacecraft chaperoning the Mars rover Curiosity to the planet will attempt to deliver the rover in one of the trickiest landings ever, an event that could occur at 1:31am ET.
The challenge: Previous Mars rovers were able to rely on air-bag-like protective devices for landing, and essentially bounced onto the planet's surface. The one-ton Curiosity's size and complexity demands a more careful landing, and the solution is one that was never able to be fully tested on Earth. During those "seven minutes of terror," the spacecraft will rely on a supersonic parachute to slow it from 13,200mph to about 1.7mph; with seconds to go, the rover will be lowered to the surface using three nylon tethers and retro rockets. "For the landing to succeed, hundreds of events will need to go right, many with split-second timing and all controlled autonomously by the spacecraft," says the $2.5 billion mission's project manager. "The risks are real.''