The Mars landing is approaching NASA; anxiety building a day


With just one day to launch, NASA's InSight spacecraft pointed to an ox-eye landing on Mars, approaching like an arrow without going back.

InSight's six-month, 300-million-mile (482 million-kilometer) journey comes to a grand finale on Monday afternoon.

The robotic geologist – designed to explore the interior of Mars from surface to nucleus – must go from 19,800 km / h to zero in six minutes while penetrating the Martian atmosphere, launching a parachute, powering its descent engines and, hopefully, landing in three legs.

It is NASA's first attempt to land on Mars in six years, and everyone involved is understandably anxious.

NASA chief scientist Thomas Zurbuchen confided Sunday that his stomach is already spinning. The hardest thing is to sit in your hands and do nothing, he said, except waiting and praying that everything runs smoothly for InSight.

"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 very uncomfortable chance that something can go wrong."

The Earth's success rate on Mars is 40%, counting all attempts at overflight and orbital landing by the US, Russia and other countries dating back to 1960.

But the United States has achieved seven successful Mars landings over the past four decades. With just one failed touchdown, it's an enviable record. No other country has been able to assemble and operate a spaceship on the dusty red surface.

InSight could give NASA its eighth victory.

He's shooting at the Elysium Planitia, a plain near the Martian equator that the InSight team expects to be as flat as a parking lot in Kansas with few rocks, if any. This is not a stone collecting expedition. Instead, the 800-pound (360 kg) stationary probe will use its 6-foot (1.8-meter) robotic arm to place a mechanical pint and a seismograph on the ground.

The self-hammered mole will excavate 16 feet (5 meters) to measure the planet's internal heat, while the ultra-high-tech seismograph awaits possible marsquakes. None of this was attempted before in our smaller neighbor, almost 160 million kilometers away.

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 darkest and darkest interior of Mars – still preserved since its earliest days – scientists hope to create 3D images that can reveal how the rocky planets in our solar system formed 4.5 billion years ago and why they showed so 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 from InSight's $ 1 billion, two-year operation could even reach rocky worlds beyond our solar system, according to Banerdt. The discoveries on Mars could 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 the 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.

Because it's been so long since NASA's last Martian earthquake – the Curiosity rover in 2012 – Mars mania is not only occupying the space and science communities, but also ordinary people.

Visualization parties are planned from coast to coast in museums, planetariums and libraries, as well as in France, where the InSight seismometer was designed and built. The NASDAQ giant screen in New York's Times Square will begin broadcasting NASA Television an hour before 3 PM of InSight. Touchdown EST; as well as the Udvar-Hazy Center at the National Air and Space Museum in Chantilly, Va., and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. The InSight spacecraft was built near Denver by Lockheed Martin.

But the real action, at least on Earth, will happen at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, home to InSight's flight control team. NASA is providing a special 360-degree online broadcast from within the control center.

Confirmation of the touchdown may take a few minutes – or hours. At the very least, there is an eight-minute communication delay between Mars and Earth.

A pair of slave-sized satellites ahead of InSight since launch in May will attempt to broadcast its radio signals to Earth, with a potential delay of less than nine minutes. These experimental CubeSats will fly through the red planet without stopping. The signals could also travel directly from InSight to radio telescopes in West Virginia and Germany. It will take more time to listen to NASA orbiter on Mars.

Project manager Tom Hoffman said he's trying his best to stay calm as hours pass. Once InSight phones arrive from the Martian surface, he expects to behave very much like what his three grandchildren did for Thanksgiving dinner, running like crazy and screaming.

"Just to alert anyone sitting next to me … I'm going to release my 4-year-old son into you, so be careful," he said.


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