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NASA faces six minutes of terror landing Mars InSight

After a seven-month journey, the lander will scream through the red planet’s thin atmosphere at more than 12,000 mph in a live-or-die bid to settle (in one piece) onto a flat area near the equator.

world Updated: Nov 26, 2018 22:21 IST
NASA,NASA landing,Mars InSight
The NASA Martian lander InSight dedicated to investigating the deep interior of Mars is seen in an undated artist's rendering.(Reuters File Photo)

NASA has a date Monday afternoon with “six minutes of terror,” a high-stakes plunge across the surface of Mars that will hopefully end with a successful landing of the Mars InSight.

After a seven-month journey, the lander will scream through the red planet’s thin atmosphere at more than 12,000 mph in a live-or-die bid to settle (in one piece) onto a flat area near the equator. To succeed, the probe must complete a series of intricately orchestrated maneuvers during a fraught, 6.5-minute “entry, descent and landing” phase covering the final 77 miles.

Still flying at supersonic speed, the probe will pop a 39-foot parachute to radically slow its velocity, followed by the jettisoning of the heat shield, the release of landing legs and the initiation of ground radar signals to acquire data on the landing site. The InSight craft is aiming for a flat plain mostly free of rocks called Elysium Planitia, which NASA has dubbed “the biggest parking lot on Mars.”

Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab near Los Angeles will be forced to wait eight minutes for confirmation of InSight’s fate. The mission includes two small cube satellites trailing the probe, which are designed to help relay real-time data from the craft back to earth, faster than a NASA satellite orbiting Mars could. The cubesats are a NASA experiment to determine methods of speedier signal transmissions to and from Mars.

The landing is NASA’s first attempt since August 2012, when the massive, 2,000-pound Curiosity rover used a unique “sky crane” to land successfully on the surface.

Once the science begins in January, the InSight mission seeks to answer critical questions about rocky planet formation in the early days of the solar system. The geologic record of Mars is preserved far better than that of earth, which has active tectonic plates and heat convection from its core, dynamic processes that tend to obliterate physical evidence from eons past.

The InSight mission will also bring several martian “firsts” to interplanetary science, including the first seismometer situated on the surface, to detect and analyze waves created by “marsquakes.” The stationery lander also carries a six-foot robotic arm and a self-hammering “nail” instrument that will burrow itself 16 feet into the ground to study heat transfer.

While NASA’s twin Viking landers from the summer of 1976 had seismometers to detect marsquakes, those were atop the craft and produced “noisy data,” according to JPL. The InSight’s instrument will be on the ground and is expected to yield much deeper insighton quakes, which are thought to be smaller than 6.0 on the Richter scale. Seismic activity on Mars is thought to come from cracks forming in the crust, with the planet’s interior energy thought to be less intense than Earth’s.

The 800-pound, solar-powered InSight is also the first deep-space vehicle to launch from the U.S. West Coast. NASA is quick to note the paltry success rate—only 40 percent—for Mars missions; the U.S. is so far the only nation that has successfully landed on Mars. “We’re batting about 50 percent or less,” Thomas Zurbuchen, a NASA associate administrator, said Wednesday during a JPL news conference.

In October 2016, the European Space Agency lost its ExoMars Schiaparelli craft during an attempted Mars landing. An inquiry completed last year concluded that onboard computer software errors led to data conflicts, causing the probe to strike Mars at high speed.

NASA last lost a craft during entry in December 2009 when the 600-pound Mars Polar Lander careened into the surface at about 50 mph, also due to a software error, because the lander’s descent engines shut down too soon.

The InSight mission cost about $814 million, including the launch costs; France and Germany invested about $180 million.

First Published: Nov 26, 2018 15:31 IST