Landing on Mars: seven minutes of TERROR!

JPL's video demonstrating the engineering challenges in the precise timing of the descent of a human-crewed Mars lander is nail-biting territory. There's a reason they call the landing "seven minutes of terror."

Challenges of Getting to Mars: Curiosity's Seven Minutes of Terror (Thanks, Fipi Lele!)


  1. whatever the outcome, landing or not, we’ve come a long way in robotic and ai sciences and it’s only going to get better

  2. No, that’s incorrect.  It’s a actually a small Rhesus monkey at the controls of the Skycrane.  He gets a banana if he successfully drops off the rover.  He then has about 20 seconds to enjoy it.

  3. It’s not at all human-crewed. This is about the Curiosity rover that’s scheduled to land on Mars this August.

    I can’t figure out whether there’s something very different about the requirements for landing Curiosity, or if this is the same technique they already used successfully for Spirit and Opportunity and they’re just being all dramatic about it.

    1. Spirit and Opportunity were surrounded by airbags and bounced to a stop (!) – the skycrane has never been tried before.

    2. This is an entirely new technique – Spirit and Opportunity used the airbag protected landing craft technique (basically turning the landing craft into a giant bouncy ball). I’d attach a video, but I can’t find a single one that doesn’t have absolutely terrible background music.

      1.  Here’s what I don’t get.  Since the superball landing was totally successful…  we should abandon it and go with a new technology?  And it’s called “Seven Minutes of Terror?”  I thought we were at war with terror?

        1. Because the MSL is about the size and weight of a Mini Cooper.  Far too big for the airbag technique, even in Mars gravity.  Plus, the airbag technique requires some luck as well so that your first bounce isn’t on top of some jagged rock that pierces the balloon and destroys the rover.  If the skycrane works, it will be a less random alternative. 

          1. Yes, it’s all about weight and the sky-crane giving it the ability to land in more interesting places with precision. 

            Check out this pic to compare the size between Curiosity and our earlier Rovers.

        2. Although the the bouncy-ball technique may not be sufficient, I believe that the whoopee-cushion technology shows great promise and may propel space exploration to new lows.  New lows = successful landings!
          (Just drop it first, and land on it! No uncomfortable bouncing, the kinetic energy is converted into sound!)

    3. It’s a different technique because the “bouncing ball of doom” landing technique can’t handle the mass of the Curiosity rover. Spirit and Opportunity were about the size of a golf cart and weighed 185 kg, Curiosity is the size of car and weighs 900 kg.

      1. And not forgetting that having a nuclear reactor bouncing on the ground is not going to be something that they would like to test back here on earth.. 

  4. It’s a great video but it’s not about a human-crewed lander – it’s about the unmanned Curiosity lander that’s on its way to Mars right now.  The landing will take place in August.

    1. Awesome video. We could have easily sent one of these for every space shuttle launch that went up (they each cost $0.5B).  But unmanned isn’t teh sexy.

    1. It depends on which neighbourhood of the planet that you live in.
      I was all for metric in America, then some moron started to make it confusing with conversion factors, etc, then they dropped the metric, so now gasoline is STILL “metered” out in gallons.
      They should have put plastic representations of a liter and a gallon on top of the pumps, instead of “scaring” people with math!
      Sorry for the rant, but I can’t believe the USA has not fully adopted metric system by now!
      How the heck am I supposed to know how many cups are in a gallon?! But I know that there are 1000 milliliters in a liter EASY!
      How many feet in a mile, five thousand two hundred and who gives a F vs. 1000 meters in  a kilometer.
      (But what do I know, I drive on the Parkway and park in the Driveway, and I have Impending-Dark-Ages issues…)

      1.  Ah, you’re just jealous because our mile is longer than your kilometer and our gallon is bigger than your liter.

      2. When would you need to know how many cups in a gallon? Never. If you use a system it is easy, if you don’t use it it may not be.

        Gallon = 4 quarts = 8 pints = 16 cups

    2. I believe the actual calculations are all done in metric. But then they have to resort to “Imperial” to explain it to the taxpayers.

  5. They need to run things like this during the Superbowl or in movie theaters to help recruit kids into engineering.

    Also, though they mention dust fouling as the reason behind creating the sky crane, but was it more a function of budget limitations?  We put Viking down using fully powered descent, and the mass difference is around 300 kg.

    1. They really should bring back the newsreel approach to movie theaters. Thats a brilliant idea. Although like you said switch from targeting adults to targeting kids. Flash a bunch of inspiring and positive world-changing snippets in front of tomorrows generations, not more of the mindless buzz of trailers! Lets be realistic, its not like anyone is benefiting from those, oh unless you count Hollywood and we all know how much of a positive impact on the world cinema is making these days. LOL Unfortunately I am a cinephile and will continue to watch the industry perish.

  6. I think they missed a great opportunity for a call back. The final moment of the film should have had the parachute slowly drape over the rover … and cue Thomas Newman.

  7. They say this thing is about the size and weight of a Mini Cooper. Personally, I think JPL should give up on this whole space thing and go into the delivery business.

    I’d pay extra to have a Mini Cooper delivered via ICBM to my house and then deposited via skycrane.

    1. On a similar note, and after having stayed up for a particularly unimpressive Perseid meteor shower, I emailed NASA asking them to forget the ISS and send up a payload-bay full of gravel on the next shuttle mission.

  8. Wow, that’s an incredibly nervy thing to try. If this works I will be shocked – totally psyched, but shocked. Just to bow to mindless superstition for a second…Mars has a way of eating probes for breakfast, so many have failed. If it works, this is the ultimate “up yours” to nonsense and magical thinking. Can’t wait! Watch the countdown to landing here.

  9. At 4:15 they say “at 20m above the surface … a tether 21ft long’. 20 meters & 21 feet? I hope those are the correct units!

    1. I think the skycrane comes to a hover at 20m/66ft off the ground. Then it extends the cables lowering the rover by 6m/20ft. Then the skycrane descends 14m/46ft until the rover settles down onto its wheels (at which point the skycrane is 6m/20ft off the ground). Then separation.

      I wonder whether they’ll attempt to land the skycrane or just let it crash once it gets far enough away. Minimizing the impact velocity woul be more expensive (requiring more fuel, more computing resources, maybe an extra sensor or two, etc) but it might be safer for the rover (since there won’t be pieces of skycrane flying everywhere) if they auto-land the skycrane instead of letting it fall and slam into the ground.

      1. Personally, I kind of feel bad for the sky crane.  All that way to get to Mars, only to face plant at high velocity, and that’s only if it does its job perfectly.  Sort of reminds me of some of my previous jobs, come to think of it.  :-(

  10. Stupid fake shaky-cam – it hides any visual indication of how much they expect the craft to pitch, or not pitch, as the rockets are doing the atmospheric correction.

    If there were humans aboard, they could get out the $500k space-feather duster and clean off any instruments / solar panels – no need for a sky-crane.

    1. I believe it does broadcast simple messages during the aerobraking and landing phase so that if it goes badly, the investigation has a head start. But the transmission will of course be unreliable when there is a lot of plasma around the aeroshell.

  11. If Mars is like a million and one miles away, they should just put in enough fuel to go a million and NINE TENTHS of a mile. Then it would run out of gas and sputter to a stop and they could swing down on ropes.         
    Don’t thank me, I saw that in a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

  12. That’s an excellently-made video. But I wonder, shouldn’t they have let Dr. McKay engineer it, not Dr. Beckett?

  13. i really feel they over-sell this. it’s awesome all on its own — it doesn’t need the bruckheimer treatment.

  14. Be careful. Europe will have a run on the metre and there’ll be a metric crisis, you mark my words.

    1. Then Angela Merkel will tell Greece that they can’t receive a bail-out unless they reduce their meters to 94 centimeters.

  15. Two things strike me:
    1) This landing involves so many physical configuration changes that have to go *just right*. The System Engineer in me is kinda appalled that they’re taking on the risk. Granted, everything always has to go just right when you’re landing on a planet, but I’ve never seen so many Big Things Popping Off And New Things Deploying in my life. Methinks these folks watched too many Transformers movies. Take the last Tricky Maneuver, for example – having the rocket thingie hover overhead as the rover itself is extended down to the ground. They’re doing this because they don’t want to kick up dust that’ll coat the instruments. OK fine, but this is Mars, and Mars has nasty weather– won’t there be a dust storm in the next two weeks anyway? And don’t the instruments have
    retractable covers?

    2) One wonders if anybody there noticed the irony of bragging about “500,000 L1nes of Cod3… zero margin of error”

Comments are closed.