Insight Mission to Mars: Why is it so difficult to land on the Red Planet?


Illustration of the InSight probe close to the landingCopyright of the image

Image caption

InSight will enter the Martian atmosphere at 19,800 kilometers per hour and will have to reduce its speed in less than seven minutes to only 8 km per hour for a successful landing.

It is the first space probe to explore the heart of Mars. And it is expected to land on the red planet this Monday at 19:53 GMT.

The mission InSight has instruments that allow it to drill the surface of the planet to a depth never reached and to measure the seismic movements of the red planet.

InSight, a NASA project involving European partners, will be the first mission to place seismographs on the Martian floor.

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The spacecraft departed for Mars on May 5, and the landing this Monday – if it happens according to plan – will be a spectacular achievement.

Landing on Mars is so difficult that about two-thirds of the attempts have failed.

Why is it so difficult to land on Mars?

The probe, of six meters long and 700 kilos in weight, is expected to land in a flat region called Elyseum Planitia, which NASA describes as "the largest parking lot on Mars."

To descend in the right place, InSight must enter the Martian atmosphere within a window of only 24km by 10km.

Entry into the atmosphere and descent to the surface requires very complex maneuvers.

The probe will enter the Martian atmosphere at a speed six times higher than a high-speed bullet and should dramatically reduce it, he explained. Jonathan Amos, a science correspondent for the BBC.

A recent European attempt, in 2016, ended with a starry probe against the surface.

InSight will enter the Martian atmosphere at 19,800 kilometers per hour and should reduce its speed to only 8 km per hour. This extreme deceleration must occur in a space of just under seven minutes.

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One of the difficulties is that the atmosphere of Mars has only 1% of the density of the Earth's atmosphere, so there is little friction to reduce the speed of the ship.

NASA hopes to be successful with its combination of tools: a heat-resistant capsule, a parachute and retro-jackets to slow down the probe's speed.

The US space agency explained that when entering the Martian atmosphere the capsule should withstand a temperature near 1,500 degrees Celsius.

"We have done everything we can to land successfully," he said. Julie Wertz Chen, one of the mission's scientists.

"But it's really very, very difficult to land on another planet."

"We do not dare to say that we will achieve it easily, because you never know what surprises Mars can give you."

Martian earthquakes

InSight will for the first time detailed x-ray of the interior of Mars and will remain on the red planet 728 days, about a Martian year or about two Earth years.

The name of the probe is an acronym for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (Inner Exploration with Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport).

Copyright of the image
NASA / JPL-Caltech

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The probe has seismographs that will allow it to capture Martian earthquakes.

The seismometers of the ship, one British and one French, will try to capture Martian earthquakes produced by tectonic movements or meteorite impacts.

And studying seismic vibrations will allow you to study the inner rock layers of Mars, from the crust, the mantle, and the core.

"An earthquake is almost like the flash of a lamp," explained the mission's chief scientist, Bruce Banerdt.

"It illuminates the interior of the planet with seismic waves. the seismometer is like a camera that collects those waves to compose an image. Pixel to pixel we reconstruct a 3D representation of the interior of the planet ".

Copyright of the image
NASA / JPL-Caltech

Image caption

The ship will be the first to place seismographs on the Martian surface.

Another instrument will penetrate the Martian soil to a depth of five meters to measure how much heat escapes from the interior of the planet.

And the probe also carries a device developed by Spanish scientists, Twins, that will allow to measure wind speed and temperature, as well as an instrument to measure variations in the rotation of the planet.

Mars and the Earth

"Scientists are well acquainted with the interior structure of the Earth and have models to explain the beginnings of the Solar System more than 4.5 billion years ago," he explained. Jonathan Amos, a science correspondent for the BBC, who will accompany the landing from the center that monitors the operation, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, JPL, in California.

Copyright of the image
NASA / JPL-Caltech

Image caption

Two miniature ships called Mars Cube One, or MarCO, have been traveling separately to Mars behind InSight and will transmit data on the landing to Earth.

"But Earth is just a window into that history and Mars will allow us to better understand how a rocky planet forms and evolves over thousands of years," added Amos.

InSight will help astronomers understand why the evolution of Mars and Earth was so different and what elements were essential for our planet to be habitable.

Two miniature spaceships called together Mars Cube One, or March, who separated from InSight shortly after launch, have been traveling to Mars as part of a separate NASA experiment.

MarCO is the first CubeSats deep space mission, a class of ships using miniature technology.

If MarCO successfully arrives on Mars it will try to transmit data from InSight as it enters the Martian atmosphere and lands, and the event can be followed live through NASA Television.

If the experiment works, it could be the beginning of a new type of data communication of space missions to Earth, according to the space agency.

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