NASA Ames lab plays key role in safely landing rover on Mars

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. (KGO) -- A team of roughly 100 engineers, scientists and managers at NASA Ames Laboratory in Silicon Valley played a key role in Thursday's successful rover landing on Mars.

The final descent to the Red Planet had been described by onlookers as "seven minutes of terror."

That's because the NASA rover "Perseverance" faced extreme heat as it approached the planet's surface.

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There were also a few moments of lost communications between the rover and Mission Control, caused by the high temperatures.

The final seven minutes, NASA officials say, were the most critical.

The Mars rover was hurling toward the Jezero Crater at 50,000 miles-per-hour, and enduring as much as 3,800 degrees Fahrenheit as it prepared to land.

The local aerospace engineers and scientists at NASA Ames in Mountain View played a critical role in developing two components for the mission.

One element they constructed was the parachute that helped slow the Perseverance rover as it neared Mars.

The lid covering the parachute compartment had to withstand extreme heat yet separate safely when the device was deployed.

NASA project manager Dr. Helen Hwang worked on the compartment's design.

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"It has to be very lightweight because it has to be very low mass," Dr. Hwang says. "We don't want that lid to come back and what we call a recontact to hit that part of the spacecraft again or hit the parachute. That would be terrible."

The rover's heat shield material was also invented at NASA Ames, and tested in the laboratory's arc jet complex that simulates Mars entry conditions.

Protecting the rover, its instruments, and computers onboard are especially critical in those last minutes.

A special computer and network of cameras have to withstand the extreme heat to make critical landing decisions.

"That vision system is looking at the terrain, looking at obstacles and making onboard decisions to divert the rover in the hopes of landing it somewhere safe," explained Dr. Farah Alibay, a NASA systems engineer.

Even with the successful landing, research and development will continue at NASA Ames on a new woven heat shield for future Mars landings to retrieve soil and rock samples.

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"That heat shield is going to be using a new woven material," says Dr. Hwang. "It's very robust, it's very strong, and we really think that this is the way to go in the future to be able to weave an entire heat shield in one piece."

There is much work ahead as scientists continue the Mars mission to find evidence of life, the study of its climate and geology, and the hope of extending the reach of humans in space.
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