'Six and a half minutes of terror' before Mars landing

27 November, 2018, 00:44 | Author: Sam Montgomery
  • NASA  JPL-Caltech

The InSight is carrying two main science instruments - a burrowing heat probe and a trio of highly sensitive seismometers - to help mission scientists map the Martian insides in unprecedented detail over the next two Earth years, according to Space.com.

The craft will land in the same manner as the Viking spacecraft before it, using the friction of a heat shield and then a parachute to slow down from hypersonic speeds as much as possible with atmospheric drag.

"My imagination has always really been challenged by Mars because we keep on running into things that are crazier than I ever imagined", Bruce Banerdt, principle investigator of the InSight mission, said yesterday during a NASA press conference. "Now we finally will explore inside Mars and deepen our understanding of our terrestrial neighbor as NASA prepares to send human explorers deeper into the solar system". During that time, engineers will monitor the environment and photograph the terrain in front of the lander.

After a detailed photo survey of the surrounding terrain near the lander and repeated rehearsals on Earth, a robot arm on InSight's upper deck will be commanded to pick up both instruments and lower them to the surface.

But on Tuesday afternoon, we may get the first image back from InSight of its new home on the surface of Mars.

The instrument, mounted on the deck of the lander, will also give an indication if the core is liquid or solid. It's a geophysical lander tasked with studying the deep interior of Mars and trying to understand the processes that formed the rocky planets of the interior solar system over four billion years ago.

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Adopting an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach, Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) engineers have taken the design of the Phoenix lander and adapted it for InSight. To successfully land, Insight must go from about about 12,300 miles per hour to 0 in around six minutes.

As you may remember when Curiosity reached Mars, landing involved seven minutes of terror.

But the US has pulled off seven successful Mars landings in the past four decades. This means there will be some delay between what is happening on the Red Planet and what we see on Earth. 15 seconds later, the spacecraft will experience maximum deceleration which, along with the heating, could make radio contact a bit wobbly. "We have 12 small descent engines grouped around the bottom of the lander that are providing the thrust to slow us down the final kilometer". The probe will first touch the atmosphere six minutes and 45 seconds before landing.

It's shooting for Elysium Planitia, a plain near the Martian equator that the InSight team hopes is as flat as a parking lot in Kansas with few, if any, rocks.

Once InSight successfully lands - if it survives the perilous entry - it must be properly aligned with the sun to keep producing power and charging its batteries. That spacecraft landed at the north pole of Mars, studied the planet's water cycle, and even observed snowfall. Once InSight phones home from the Martian surface, though, he expects to behave much like his three young grandsons did at Thanksgiving dinner, running around like insane and screaming. By carefully analyzing slight changes in the radio signals from the spacecraft as Mars rotates on its axis and sweeps along its orbit, scientists can precisely locate the martian polar axis and measure how it slowly changes orientation.

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