Science

NASA's latest Mars probe, InSight, Is Scheduled To Land Monday

NASA's latest Mars probe, InSight, Is Scheduled To Land Monday”

InSight's journey of six months and 300 million miles comes to a precarious grand finale Monday afternoon.

On Monday, NASA's InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) Lander is scheduled for a soft touchdown on the surface of the planet Mars, the first spacecraft launched from the West Coast of the U.S. to reach another planet.

On Monday, InSight will follow a similar trajectory, entering the Martian atmosphere at an altitude of 125km, and relying on a combination of heat shield, parachutes, and on-board thrusters to mitigate heating and slow its velocity from almost 20,000 km/hour to about 10 km/h-a factor of 2,000-before its three spindly landing legs touch the surface of Mars.

The InSight and next rover mission, along with others in the planning stage, are seen as precursors for eventual human exploration of Mars, NASA officials said.

Along for the ride to Mars are two communication relay CubeSats, MarCO-A and B. The briefcase-sized spacecraft were intended as demonstrators, but since both have functioned admirably en-route to the Red Planet as independent flyers, will provide a short-term communication relay for InSight as the lander heads down to the surface.

The mission control team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) near Los Angeles prepared to conduct a final adjustment to the InSight's flight path on Sunday to manoeuvre the spacecraft closer toward its entry point over Mars.

Scientists expect to see a dozen to 100 marsquakes over the course of the mission, producing data to help them deduce the size, density and composition of the planet.

"What this helps us understand is how we got to here", said JPL's Bruce Banerdt, InSight principal investigator, during a pre-landing briefing with reporters last week.

As a back-up system, InSight will send one of two tones via a UHF signal to Earth, immediately after touching down.

Concentrating on planetary building blocks, InSight has no life-detecting capability.

InSight also is fitted with a German-made drill to burrow as much as 16 feet (5 metres) underground, pulling behind it a rope-like thermal probe to measure heat.

- Touchdown is expected at 1954 GMT. Unlike InSight, the MarCO spacecraft keep on going past Mars into space.

A carefully orchestrated sequence - already fully preprogrammed on board the spacecraft - takes place over the next several minutes, coined "six and a half minutes of terror".

The eight-minute time delay with Earth means scientists will be as powerless as the hundreds watching the mission live on TV. A minute later, the spacecraft will make a turn to orient itself for atmospheric entry. Radio telescopes in Green Bank, West Virginia and Effelsberg, Germany will be listening.

Project manager Tom Hoffman said he's trying his best to stay outwardly calm as the hours tick down.

InSight is the first dedicated to unlocking secrets from deep below the Martian surface.

Hoffman, who is father to a two- and four-year-old, added that has "not been sleeping that great", though he said that might because of his rambunctious toddlers.



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