NASA Spacecraft To Endure '7 Minutes of Terror' In Mars Landing

Terry Joseph
November 27, 2018

"And we're going to stay vigilant till InSight settles into its home in the Elysium Planitia region". Then the science really gets underway.

Travelling 301 million miles (548 million km) from Earth, the Mars InSight spacecraft was due to reach its destination on the dusty, rock-strewn surface of the Red Planet at about 3 p.m. EST (2000 GMT).

NASA last landed on Mars in 2012 with the Curiosity rover.

Illustration of NASA's InSight lander about to land on the surface of Mars. It has spent the past 6 months uneventfully cruising through space, making occasional tweaks to its trajectory.

Engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab near Los Angeles will be forced to wait eight minutes for confirmation of InSight's fate.

InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) is based on 2008's Phoenix Lander, which itself used components left over from the cancelled Mars Surveyor 2001 lander.

JPL officials noted that the spacecraft was designed with a durable heat shield that can protect it against a dust storm if necessary while landing. A belly-mounted radar will begin to sense the approaching ground.

"We never take Mars for granted". This is NASA's first mission to study the deep interior of Mars, and the craft's landing will be tricky.

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The Nasa Viking probes of the mid-1970s were equipped with seismometers, too, but they were bolted to the top of the landers, a design that proved largely ineffective.

The power, which NASA reckoned would be enough run a household blender, will drive the three main instruments carried by the lander.

Half a second later: The lander's retrorockets (or descent engines) fire up. "Hopefully it'll be flat and boring", says Tom Hoffman, the mission's project manager at JPL.

The descent will be monitored by two nanosatellites known as MarCO-A and MarCO-B. Although the Associated Press notes that the USA has pretty good track record of seven successful landings and only one failure. A status report on the panels won't arrive until some 5 hours after landing.

'I'm rather nervous and tense, ' she said this morning. "After that, we should be in good shape".

InSight is being followed to Mars by two mini-spacecraft that comprise NASA's Mars Cube One (MarCo), the first deep-space mission for CubeSats, or tiny satellites. Instead, the craft will operate two primary science instruments: the most sensitive seismometer to ever leave Earth and a heat probe created to burrow deep underground.

The tone is important, and is one of a sequence that engineers on Earth will be listening for as InSight passes each landing milestone.

For all the background you could want or need on InSight, watch Claire Reilly's preview below and read my breakdown of the mission's goals here. The station, developed by French partners, will catch rumbles of marsquakes, important for interpreting the planet's interior. Twenty-three have not. Three have achieved orbit but failed at a landing. The heat probe will measure how much heat is escaping from the planet, and how quickly-a clue to when it was most volcanically active. Taking the temperature at that depth will allow planetary scientists to determine how much heat is escaping from Mars. They'll use a working replica of InSight in an indoor "Mars sandbox", which will be sculpted to match the mission's actual landing site on Mars.

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