Mars landing: NASA controllers will gobble up ‘lucky peanuts’ in odd superstition today

Mars landing: NASA controllers will gobble up ‘lucky peanuts’ in odd superstition today

02/18/2021

NASA's Perseverance rover: Experts discuss Mars landing

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Perseverance is rapidly closing in on its target, with less than 600,000 miles left to go before its scheduled 8.55pm GMT landing in Mars’s Jezero Crater. Like the Curiosity mission before it, the alien-hunting rover will dive into the Martian atmosphere virtually blind because of an 11-minute delay in communications between Earth and Mars. NASA’s engineers will, therefore, not know whether the rover has survived its trip unscathed until some time after touching down.

NASA calls this landing the “seven minutes of terror” and the 28-mile wide Jezero Crater is the toughest target for a NASA rover yet.

But there is one thing NASA’s flight engineers will be able to during these 11 minutes of uncertainty: eat copious amounts of peanuts.

Although NASA might not be regarded as a particularly superstitious lot, the US space agency boasts a number of unusual launch rituals.

Since 1964, flight controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, have been passing around jars of “lucky peanuts” to ensure the success of their missions.

The superstitious ritual began with the Ranger 7 mission to the Moon 57 years ago.

And the lucky peanuts are bound to make an appearance today – although due to coronavirus, each controller might instead have their own jar or little packet.

Dick Wallace, NASA’s mission trajectory engineer on the Ranger team, said: “I thought passing out peanuts might take some of the edge off the anxiety in the mission operations room. The rest is history.”

The Ranger 7, 8 and 9 missions performed without a hitch, photographing candidate landing zones for the Apollo Moon landings.

Peanuts have appeared at nearly every launch countdown since and nowadays are seen during other critical moments, such as flybys and landings.

On the few occasions peanuts were left out of the control room, one spacecraft was lost after launch and another time a launch was delayed for 40 days.

Mr Wallace, however, is not certain the peanuts have any superstitious power over the JPL.

It might all just be a matter of hard work, planning and a good dose of luck.

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He said: “I hope not. Not in this bastion of logic and reason.”

NASA will want to get all the help it can today as Jezero Crater has been described as the agency’s toughest landing to date.

And only about 50 percent of all previous missions to Mars have successfully reached the planet.

Jezero is an ancient impact crater, which may have been home to microbial life millions or billions of years ago, as scientists believe a river once flowed into it.

And where there was water, scientists hope to find fossilised evidence of extraterrestrial life.

Jennifer Trosper, deputy project manager for the mission at JPL, said: “No Mars landing is guaranteed, but we have been preparing a decade to put this rover’s wheels down on the surface of Mars and get to work.”

Perseverance and its companion Mars Helicopter Ingenuity will attempt to land in Jezero crater without any outside help and will instead rely on a pre-programmed sequence of events.

NASA’s mission controllers will likely not be able to confirm these events, such as parachute deployment and heat shield ejection, in real time.

MiMi Aung, Ingenuity project manager at JPL, said: “The Ingenuity team will be on the edge of our seats with the Perseverance team on landing day.

“We can’t wait until the rover and the helicopter are both safely on the surface of Mars and ready for action.”

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