Anxiety at NASA as Mars InSight spacecraft nears Red Planet

Cristina Cross
November 26, 2018

The journey of six months and 300 million miles (482 million kilometres) comes to a precarious grand finale Monday afternoon.

Nasa wrote: "The landing will kick off a two-year mission in which InSight will become the first spacecraft to study Mars" deep interior.

While The Weather Network is on-site, at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory during this event (and you can follow Scott at @ScottWx_TWN on Twitter for his live commentary), you don't need to be on hand, yourself, to experience the anticipation.

What we will see, with a lag-time of about 8 minutes due to the distance between Mars and Earth, is the team in the Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) Control Center, receiving the messages that InSight sends back from Mars. "And we're looking to take humans to Mars sometime in the 2030s".

Unlike Phoenix, NASA said it expects InSight to survive nearly two Earth years on the surface.

If all goes according to plan, InSight will streak into the pink Martian sky at over 19,000kmh. The spacecraft will hurtle into the thin Martian atmosphere at 13,200mph, deploy a parachute and fire 12 retro-thrusters to cushion its landing.

The lander will aim for one of the dullest parts of the planet's dusty surface, Elysium Planitia, a vast lava plain that the USA space agency calls "the biggest parking lot on Mars". On Sol 44, InSight will deploy its heat probe, and six days later the lander will begin hammering its probe 5 meters down into the Martian surface.

But the tension won't abate right after landing.

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This is an image taken by an engineering model of NASA's InSight lander during a rehearsal for instrument deployment in a Mars-like testbed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

The 800-pound, solar-powered InSight is also the first deep-space vehicle to launch from the U.S. West Coast.

There are two almost identical MarCO spacecraft that launched with InSight last May, and have been trailing the probe on its flight to Mars.

This explains why the descent will prove to be nerve-racking minutes of terror for Nasa, because the mission managers will have little idea about how the spacecraft will be faring in real time, given the lag in receiving signals.

Experts hope the mission will be the first to unlock geological secrets of the planet's hidden core, using a probe to dig 16ft (5m) beneath the surface.

A spacecraft that cost almost a billion dollars is on course to make a perilous landing Monday on Mars, if it can survive a high-speed approach and the scorching heat of entering the Red Planet's atmosphere, a process NASA has nicknamed "six and a half minutes of terror".

For an added bonus, the MarCO team will attempt to snap pictures of InSight during the landing, however they are unsure if they will actually see anything. At this point, the probe is still traveling faster than the speed of sound, so InSight has a special parachute designed for supersonic speeds.

The smaller, 880-pound (360 kg) InSight - its name is short for Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport - marks the 21st US -launched Martian exploration including the Mariner fly-by missions of the 1960s.

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