Nasa's latest Mars craft nears landing for unprecedented seismic mission

It was NASA's ninth attempt to land at Mars since the 1976 Viking probes.

To reach Mars, InSight cruised 301,223,981 miles at a top speed of 6,200 mph, while being followed by two cube satellites.

This was NASA's first attempt to land on Mars in six years, and all those involved are understandably anxious.

InSight lander - the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport - is the USA space agency's first craft dedicated to peer beneath Mars' surface and monitor its interior.

InSight is scheduled to touch down on Mars today (Nov. 26) at 3 p.m. ET, joining Mars' other robotic inhabitants: Curiosity, Opportunity and Spirit (though only Curiosity is now "live", sending signals back to Earth). What's more, the current light travel time between Mars and Earth - the time it takes any signal sent from Mars to reach us here on Earth - is eight minutes seven seconds. "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".

"What this helps us understand is how we got to here", said JPL's Bruce Banerdt, InSight principal investigator, during a pre-landing briefing with reporters last week.

"Landing on Mars is exciting, but scientists are looking forward to the time after InSight lands", said Glaze.

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. What we'll see is the mission control room along with all the graphs and statistics that show where the lander is and what it's doing.

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Add to that the fact that fewer than half of all attempted Mars landings have ended successfully, and it makes sense that there will definitely be some nervous energy as these events play out on another planet, with engineers blind to the process until it is complete.

The terror? Well, as NASA engineers have explained, when it comes to Mars landings they often need everything to be in flawless sequence during that tiny timeframe for things to go right. "It takes skill, focus and years of preparation", said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters. InSight's actual landing on Mars is hard, and it's critical that it is completed perfectly. "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".

22 seconds later: The probe slows down to 5 miles per hour.

The InSight mission cost about $814 million, including the launch costs; France and Germany invested about $180 million.

Since then, the lander has been making its way patiently towards its drop zone on the plains of Mars' Elysium Planitia. Unlike InSight, the MarCO spacecraft keep on going past Mars into space. A flight version of the Instrument Context Camera (ICC) that took this image is expected to take InSight's first image on Mars.

InSight will spend 24 months - about one Martian year - using seismic monitoring and underground temperature readings to unlock mysteries about how Mars formed and, by extension, the origins of the Earth and other rocky planets of the inner solar system.

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.

(Copyright © 2015. All Rights Reserved.)
 
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