NASA cheekily refers to the Mars Science Laboratory’s complicated landing scenario, a scheme that relies on a flyable platform, supersonic parachutes and an aerial crane, as “the seven minutes of terror.”

Now, thanks to a glitch that repositioned MSL’s primary communications satellite, those seven minutes of terror may be followed by a couple of hours of nail-biting uncertainty over whether the rover arrived safely or not.

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Mars Odyssey is one of three spacecraft circling Mars that will be used to monitor MSL’s arrival and landing, now scheduled for 1:31 a.m. EDT on Aug. 6.

But a steering system problem on Odyssey last month has left the spacecraft in a different orbit than what had been previously scheduled and if it can’t be moved back, it won’t be properly positioned to relay MSL’s entire descent and landing.

Two other spacecraft — NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the European Space Agency’s Mars Express — also will be supporting MSL’s landing, but the MRO will be recording the descent and touchdown for playback two- to three hours later and Mars Express won’t be able to see the last minute of landing.


“There’s no impact to landing itself. It’s simply how that data gets returned to us and how timely that data is,” NASA’s Doug McCuistion, head of the agency’s Mars exploration program, told Discovery News.

“There’s a potential (Mars Odyssey) won’t see all of the landing area, from a communications perspective, and it may not cover any of that landing event,” he said.

NASA is considering trying to move Odyssey, but has not yet made any decisions. In its present orbit, the spacecraft should be flying over MSL’s landing site about 1.5 to 2 hours after touchdown and is expected to pick up radio signals from the probe at that time, added project manager Pete Theisinger, with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

ANALYSIS: Sticky Wheel Interrupts Mars Odyssey Mission

MSL, also known as Curiosity, is designed to assess conditions for life in an area known as Gale Crater. The 96-mile-wide impact basin has a three-mile high mound of what appears to be layers of sediment.

Image: Artist’s rendering of Mars Science Laboratory beginning its risky descent to the planet’s surface. It may take a couple of hours before NASA learns the probe’s fate. Credit: NASA