A year after Curiosity’s landing, reliving ‘Seven Minutes of Terror’

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When Curiosity nailed its picture-perfect touchdown on Mars last year, the mission control room at Jet Propulsion Laboratory erupted into cheers and high-fives. On Monday, Aug. 5, the Mars Science Laboratory team will be recounting their favorite moments during the “Seven Minutes of Terror,” the hair-raising sequence the rover had to execute to survive the landing.

While the mission was years in the making, it was this against-all-odds tale that grabbed the public’s attention, captured in a snazzy video describing the team’s plan to reach the Red Planet without crashing and burning.

“When people look at it, it looks crazy. That’s a very natural thing,” Adam Steltzner, the mission’s rockabilly-haired JPL engineer, says in the video. “Sometimes when we look at it, it looks crazy.”


That intro, calling upon the powerful narrative trope of ‘It’s so crazy, it just might work,” proved irresistible to Internet audiences, picking up millions of YouTube views.

In roughly seven minutes, the rover would have to slow down from 13,000 miles per hour to a dead stop, without smashing itself in the process. It would deploy a supersonic parachute, cast off its heat shield, and -- just 100 meters above the surface -- deploy a hovercraft-like ‘descent stage’ that would hang in the air as it carefully lowered the rover using cables. The cables would then be cut and the stage would hurl itself into the distance to avoid falling and crushing the rover.

“If any one thing doesn’t work just right,” JPL engineer Tom Rivellini says in the video, “it’s game over.”

That’s a lot more complicated than padding a rover with airbags and letting it roll to a stop -- the method used with the 2004 rovers Spirit and Opportunity. But Curiosity needed something more challenging, because it was too big to survive such a bouncy landing.

The “Seven Minutes of Terror” video helped drum up buzz around the August landing night. NASA reported 1.2 million webcast streams at peak of landing night – more than double their previous record, according to JPL media relations officer Veronica McGregor.

The viewers gave celebrity status to many engineers in the control room such as Bobak Ferdowsi, the mysterious Mohawk Guy whose dramatic stars-and-stripes hairdo turned him into a Twitter sensation.


“I got recognized in a pizza parlor on Wednesday,” systems engineer Allen Chen said a few days after he emceed the landing. “That was a little weird for me.”

That fame seems to have followed the mission into this year, project scientist John Grotzinger, a Caltech geologist, said in a recent interview.

“After it landed, because it was so popular because of the seven minutes of terror, we kind of thought it would spike and go away ... but it’s amazing to me how many people follow it,” Grotzinger said.

This week, NASA and JPL will be reliving the glory, and you can tune in to Science Now on Monday as mission team members reminisce about landing night. On Tuesday, there will be a moderated chat that you can view on NASA’s live streaming channel. And on Aug. 15, Curiosity’s deputy project scientist Ashwin Vasavada will talk about some of the rover’s scientific discoveries over the last year.


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