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WATCH: NASA's Mars rover Perseverance set for dramatic landing. Its mission? Find signs of life.

MELBOURNE, Fla. — Thursday afternoon will mark the moment of truth for Perseverance.

After traveling nearly 300 million miles since its launch from Cape Canaveral in July, NASA's six-wheeled robotic explorer designed to hunt for signs of life will begin its dramatic Mars descent Thursday afternoon.

Live video will be made possible by NASA during Perseverance's approach, entry, descent, and landing. The NASA stream was scheduled to begin at 2:15 p.m. EST.

The process includes the "seven minutes of terror," which from 3:48 until 3:55 p.m. will see some of the mission's most treacherous moments.

First, the capsule protecting the 10-foot rover will make contact with the Martian atmosphere, keeping thousands of degrees of friction-generated heat at bay. Then, a 70-foot parachute will deploy to slow down the spacecraft before Perseverance drops out of the capsule and begins plummeting toward the surface.

Eight retrorockets secured around the 2,200-pound rover begin firing to slow down even more, eventually brining it to a near-stop about 65 feet above the surface. This "sky crane maneuver" is then brought to an end with nylon cords gently lowering the rover to the surface before disconnecting.

Mission to Mars: Explore the Perseverance rover in augmented reality

Landing time, schedule

Though the entry, descent, and landing process won't be televised in real-time due to the delay in signals reaching Earth, teams at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California will be on-hand to talk about the mission and latest telemetry.

Perseverance should begin transmitting its first photos immediately after landing.

The expected timeline for Thursday's landing is as follows (all times Eastern):

  • 3:38 p.m.: Cruise stage separation
  • 3:48 p.m.: "Seven minutes of terror" begin with atmospheric entry
  • 3:49 p.m.: Moment of peak heating (2,400 degrees)
  • 3:52 p.m.: 70-foot parachute deployment
  • 3:52 p.m.: Heat shield separation (20 seconds after parachute)
  • 3:54 p.m.: Perseverance separates from protective back shell and parachute
  • 3:55 p.m.: Perseverance touchdown in Jezero Crater

Why is Perseverance going to Mars?

The nuclear-powered rover is NASA's latest, most advanced hardware for exploring Mars. The $2.4 billion mission will seek signs of life – past or present – in a location known as Jezero Crater, widely believed to have been home to a deep lake fed by rivers of water.

“Perseverance is our robotic astrobiologist, and it will be the first rover NASA has sent to Mars with the explicit goal of searching for signs of ancient life,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

Once safely on the Red Planet, NASA hopes the rover has features in place to do so. 

Perseverance is equipped with 16 engineering and science cameras support safe navigation and help observe the surface.

It has a 7-foot arm attached to the front that includes a powerful drill to pull core samples from rocks that interest scientists. The samples can then be sealed and stored in tubes inside the rover’s main body for more analysis later.

The rover also has the capability to remove the stored samples and leave them in designated spots around Jezero Crater. A future mission – yet to be scheduled – could one day land on the Red Planet, pick up the tubes and then fly off to return them to scientists on Earth.

Perseverance, like its sibling Mars rover Curiosity, relies on nuclear power. While the Department of Energy-provided hardware can power Perseverance for up to 14 years, the rover’s mission is currently set to last at least one Martian year (two Earth years).

Also along for the ride is Ingenuity, a 4-pound drone that is expected to host the first-ever flight on another planet. Though Ingenuity has no science hardware, two cameras will help steer the drone and teach NASA engineers how to fly on a world with an atmosphere just 1% as dense as Earth’s.

Follow reporter Emre Kelly on Twitter: @EmreKelly

Learn more about the 'seven minutes of terror'