The six-month journey of NASA's spacecraft to Mars is approaching its grand finale.
The InSight landing module is designed for landing in a matter of hours, as anxiety increases among those involved in the $ 1 billion international effort.
The dangerous descent of InSight into the Martian atmosphere has agitated stomachs and nerves stretched to the maximum. Despite being a former professional, NASA has not attempted to land on Mars for six years.
InSight is scheduled to land at 7am on Tuesday (AEDT).
The robotic geologist – designed to explore the mysterious interiors of Mars – is expected to rise from 19,800 km / h to zero in six minutes as it crosses the Martian atmosphere, launches a parachute, fires its descent engines and lands on three legs.
It is pointing to flat red plains, hopefully low in rocks.
The Earth's overall success rate on Mars is 40%.
"Landing on Mars is one of the most difficult jobs people have to do on planetary exploration," noted Bruce Banerdt, senior scientist at InSight. "It's such a difficult thing, it's such a dangerous thing that there's always a big chance something can go wrong."
This is not a stone collecting expedition. Instead, the 360 kg stationary probe will use its 1.8 meter robotic arm to place a mechanical mole and a seismograph on the ground.
The self-hammered mole will dig 5 meters to measure the planet's internal heat, while the ultra high-tech seismograph listens to marsquakes. Nothing like this has been tried before on Mars. No experiments were robotically moved from the spacecraft to the real surface of Mars. No lander dug more than several centimeters, and no seismometer ever worked on Mars.
Examining the deepest and darkest interior of Mars – still preserved from its earliest days – scientists hope to create 3D images that reveal how the rocky planets in our solar system formed 4.5 billion years ago and why they turned out so many different. One of the big questions is what made Earth so hospitable to life.
Mars has had rivers and lakes flowing; the deltas and lake beds are dry and the planet is cold. Venus is a furnace because of its thick, heat-trapping atmosphere. Mercury, closest to the sun, has a positively roasted surface. The planetary know-how obtained with InSight's two-year operation could even reach rocky worlds beyond our solar system, according to Banerdt. The discoveries on Mars can help explain the kind of conditions in these so-called "exoplanets" and how they fit into the story we are trying to find out about how planets form, "he said.
Focusing on planetary building blocks, InSight has no life-detection capability. This will be left to future robots. The NASA mission on Mars 2020, for example, will collect rocks for eventual return that may contain evidence of ancient life.