A spacecraft that costs nearly a billion dollars is on its way to a dangerous landing on Mars on Monday if it can survive a high-speed approach and the blistering heat of entering the atmosphere of the Red Planet, a process that NASA dubbed " "six and a half years". minutes of terror. "
"There's very little room for things to go wrong," said Rob Grover, head of the landing, landing and descent team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
If successful, Mars InSight's entry, descent and landing – designed to be the first mission to hear the inside of another planet and reveal how the rocky planets formed – will add another success to NASA's record when it comes to sending spacecraft. to Mars.
So far, the United States is the only nation to have gotten there, and only Curiosity's curious robotic robot, Curiosity, is still appearing on the surface.
But if it fails, it certainly will not be the first.
Of the 43 other international attempts to send orbiters, probes, landers or rovers to Mars, 25 failed. Either they fell to the surface, lost their planned orbit, or disappeared after launch.
Countdown to Mars
There will be no live broadcast of Mars Insight's approach on Monday, and the signals will be transmitted back to Earth in an eight-minute delay.
Mission managers too can not intervene if something goes wrong. The entire landing sequence is preprogrammed in the on-board computer.
See what to expect:
– At 11:40 AM Mon-Pacific time (6:40 am, Tuesday time), the spacecraft separates from the cruise stage that transported it to Mars. A minute later, the spacecraft makes a curve to orient itself towards the atmospheric entrance.
– At 19:47 GMT, the spacecraft is flying through space at a speed of 19,800 kilometers per hour (19,800 kilometers per hour) as it begins to enter the atmosphere of Mars.
– Two minutes later, the friction with the atmosphere raises the temperature of the heat shield to the peak of 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit (1,500 degrees Celsius). This intense heat can cause temporary interruptions in radio signals.
– At 1951 GMT, the parachutes are fired. Fifteen seconds later, the heat shield separates from the spacecraft. Ten seconds later, the three probe legs are positioned to prepare for landing.
– In 1952 GMT, a radar is activated to detect the distance to the ground.
– At 1953 GMT, the first radar signal is expected, followed 20 seconds later by separation of the spacecraft from the rear shield and parachute. Then the descent engines, known as retrorockets, start firing. The speed of the InSight drops dramatically, from 17 mph to a constant five mph (27 kph to eight kph) for its smooth landing.
– The touchdown is expected at 1954 GMT.
– The first beep of spacecraft X-band radio – indicating whether InSight survived the landing – is scheduled for 2001, GMT.
– The first image of the surface of Mars is expected in 2004 GMT. However, this image may not arrive until Tuesday.
– The orbital pattern of the Mars Odyssey spacecraft flying overhead means NASA will not know until 0135 GMT on Tuesday whether InSight's solar panels are installed or not. This step is crucial because the earthquake sensor is powered by the Sun for its one year mission.