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

Gwen Vasquez
November 26, 2018

NASA's Mars Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) spacecraft has reached the vicinity of Mars and is on its way to a soft touchdown on the surface of the Red Planet on November 26.

Understanding how Mars formed could reveal more about the processes that formed Earth, too.

It is NASA's first attempt to land on Mars in six years, and anxiety is building. "It takes skill, focus and years of preparation", said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters.

Watch below, starting at 2 p.m. ET (11 a.m. PT), as NASA livestreams the InSight landing on Mars, straight from the Mission Control Center at NASA JPL. "It's such a hard thing, it's such a risky thing that there's always a fairly uncomfortably large chance that something could go wrong".

Earth's overall success rate at Mars is 40 per cent.

But the USA has pulled off seven successful Mars landings in the past three decades. No other country has managed to set and operate a spacecraft on the dusty red surface.

"There is very little room for things to go wrong", said Rob Grover, head of the entry, descent and landing team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

The JPL controllers also expect to receive a photo of the probe's surroundings on the flat, smooth Martian plain close to the planet's equator called the Elysium Planitia. This is no rock-collecting expedition.

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The lander is also equipped with a robotic arm that it will use to place HP³ and RISE on the surface of the planet.

InSight will dig 16 feet into the ground to measure the temperature of Mars and it has a seismometer to detect any Mars-quakes.

No experiments have ever been moved robotically from the spacecraft to the actual Martian surface. Mars Odyssey will pass over the landing zone, with its cameras pointed down to capture whether the lander deployed its solar panels, however it will not send that information until 5 hours after the landing.

NASA scientists hopes the information gathered will aid them as they prepare for human journeys to the red planet in the next decade or so.

Mars once had flowing rivers and lakes; the deltas and lakebeds are now dry, and the planet cold.

It's the twin Mars Cube One spacecraft, the briefcase-sized MarCO-A and MarCO-B (nicknamed "EVE" and "Wall-E") that will keep us up-to-date, in a timely manner, as to how InSight is faring. That will be left for future rovers.

NASA last lost a craft during entry in December 2009 when the 600-pound Mars Polar Lander careened into the surface at about 50 miles per hour, also due to a software error, because the lander's descent engines shut down too soon.

On Monday, InSight will follow a similar trajectory, entering the Martian atmosphere at an altitude of 125km, and relying on a combination of heat shield, parachutes, and on-board thrusters to mitigate heating and slow its velocity from almost 20,000 km/hour to about 10 km/h-a factor of 2,000-before its three spindly landing legs touch the surface of Mars. The InSight spacecraft was built near Denver by Lockheed Martin.

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