NASA spacecraft lands on Mars to dig deep

27 November, 2018, 04:35 | Author: Tracy Craig
  • Mars In Sight landing

A NASA spacecraft created to burrow beneath the surface of Mars landed on the red planet Monday after a six-month, 300 million-mile journey and a perilous, six-minute descent through the rose-hued atmosphere.

If all goes according to plan, it will drop onto the equatorial plain called Elysium Planitia at about 5 miles per hour - but scientists won't know if its solar panels will have deployed until about 8:35 p.m. EST, when NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter will be in position to relay data to Earth.

The 800-pound lander, which aimed for an afternoon touchdown, must go from 12,300 miles per hour to zero in six minutes flat as it penetrates the Martian atmosphere, deploys a supersonic parachute, fires its descent engines and - hopefully - lands on three legs.

"While most of the country was enjoying Thanksgiving with their family and friends, the InSight team was busy making the final preparations for Monday's landing", said Tom Hoffman of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) who is InSight's project manager.

InSight is the first Mars landing made by the space agency since Curiosity touched down in 2012. What we'll see is the mission control room along with all the graphs and statistics that show where the lander is and what it's doing. It's hoped that a supersonic parachute, 12 descent engines, and some shock-absorbing legs will slow it down enough for a safe landing. InSight will spend two years investigating the interior where the building blocks below the planet's surface that recorded its history.

Engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory are preparing for the spacecraft to enter the Martian atmosphere, descend with a parachute and retrorockets, and touch down today at around 3 p.m. EST (12 p.m. PST, 8 p.m. GMT). In addition to the burrowing subsurface probe, InSight also carries seismometers that will measure "marsquakes" - tiny vibrations triggered by planetary activity under the planet's crust.

During that time, engineers will monitor the environment and photograph the terrain in front of the lander. "Going to Mars is really, really hard".

Mars In Sight Landing
InSight will use rockets to stabilize the probe and set it gently on the martian surface

At this crucial time the probe will break through the thin Martian atmosphere with its heat shield first, and then use a parachute to slow down.

Immediately after landing, InSight's very first act was to snap a picture of the landscape immediately in front of it. The entire landing will have already taken place - and succeeded or failed - before we even know it has begun. We've spent years testing our plans, learning from other Mars landings and studying all the conditions Mars can throw at us. It will take between two to three months for the robotic arm to place the mission's instruments on the surface.

The area where InSight is landing is called Elysium Planitia, a particularly flat area of Mars where hazardous loose rocks are absent. Because it won't be roving over the surface, the landing site was an important determination.

With InSight on Mars, what comes next? The thee-legged, one-armed InSight will operate from the same spot for the next two years. Still, this second largest volcanic region on Mars is an ideal place for InSight to land because of the science it is created to perform.

InSight, a $1 billion global project, includes a German mechanical mole that will burrow down 16 feet (5 meters) to measure Mars' internal heat.

Next up is NASA's Mars 2020 rover, which is modeled on Curiosity and planned to launch in summer 2021 for a February 2021 landing.

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