The first landing on Mars in more than six years is only a week away.
NASA's $ 850 million InSight landing module will hit Red Planet on the afternoon of November 26 amid a flurry of celebrities resembling those brought on by the successful launch of Curiosity Mars on August 5, 2012.
But success is far from guaranteed. [NASA’s InSight Mars Lander: 10 Surprising Facts]
"Although we have done this before, landing on Mars is difficult, and that mission is no different," said Rob Manning, chief engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., In a recent video on NASA's next landing. InSight. .
"It takes thousands of steps to get from the top of the atmosphere to the surface, and each of them needs to work perfectly to be a successful mission," Manning added.
The most crucial steps for InSight include aligning itself to reach the Martian atmosphere precisely at a 12-degree angle (any shallower, and it will rebound, any steep, and will burn); positioning his supersonic parachute and then landing his legs; and firing their downhill engines for the final touchdown.
All this happens in just 6 minutes – InSight's travel time in the air of the Red Planet. (Curiosity "7 minutes of terror" entry, descent and landing sequence lasted a bit longer because the heavy rover employed a different landing strategy: it was lowered to the Martian surface in cables by a rocket-propelled sky crane.)
InSight will land not far from Curiosity, on a flat plain called Elysium Planitia.
"If Elysium Planitia were a salad, it would consist of lettuce and cabbage – without dressing," said Bruce Banerdt of JPL, InSight's principal researcher, in a statement. "If it was an ice cream, it would be vanilla."
But the smoothness of the Elysium Planitia is a feature, not a bug. InSight will investigate the interior of Mars, so mission team members do not care much about interesting surface features. In fact, mountains, canyons, and cliffs are not welcome as they would make a safe landing difficult.
InSight will do its scientific work with two main instruments – an excavation heat probe and a set of supersensitive seismographs. The data collected by that gear will reveal much about the Mars internal structure and composition, said mission team members.
In addition, mission scientists will use InSight communications equipment to track the slight oscillation of the rotational axis of Mars. This information should provide important information about the planet's core.
Together, InSight's observations should help scientists better understand how rocky planets form and evolve, NASA officials said.
InSight – whose name is short for Indoor Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport – was cast on an Atlas V Alliance rocket Launched on May 5. Sharing this tour were the two tiny Mars Cube One ships, known as MarCO-A and MarCO. -B.
The Marque duo, the size of a suitcase, embarks on a demonstration mission, whose aim is to show which cubes can explore interplanetary space. MarCO-A and MarCO-B will also try to broadcast InSight data home during Lander's attempt to land next week, although this is not a critical task; other spacecraft, such as NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, will also do so.
MarCO-A and MarCO-B will not attempt to land on their own. They will pass through Mars next Monday and their operational lives will end soon thereafter.
Mike Wall's book on the search for alien life, "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing House, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), is now available. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow Us @Spacedotcom or Facebook. Originally posted on Space.com.