Just a day to go, NASA's InSight spacecraft focused on a downward landing on Mars and zoomed in like an arrow without turning back. The InSight journey of six months and 300 million miles (482 million kilometers) leads to a precarious grand final Monday afternoon.
The robotic geologist – designed to explore the inside of Mars, superficially down to the core – must go from sixty-six miles (19,800 km / h) to zero in six minutes flat because it pierces the atmosphere of Mars, brings out a parachute, descending descent motors and, hopefully, landing on three legs.
It is NASA's first attempt to land on Mars in six years, and all those involved are understandably anxious. NASA & # 39; s main science mission, Thomas Zurbuchen, trusted Sunday that his stomach is already churning. The hardest thing is to sit on his hands and do nothing, he said, except hoping and praying, everything fits perfectly with InSight.
"Landing on Mars is one of the hardest jobs people have to do in planetary exploration," says Inces & # 39; chief scientist, Bruce Banerdt. "It is so difficult, it is so dangerous that there is always a reasonably uncomfortable chance that something can go wrong."
Earth's success rate on Mars is 40 percent, including any attempt at flyby, orbital flight and landing by the US, Russia and other countries dating back to 1960. But the US has delivered seven successful Mars landings in the last four decades. With only one failed touchdown it is an enviable record. No other country has succeeded in setting up and operating a spaceship on the dusty red surface. InSight could give NASA the eighth victory.
It shoots for Elysium Planitia, a level near the equator of Mars that the InSight team hopes is as flat as a parking lot in Kansas with little or no stones. This is not a rock-gathering expedition. Instead, the stationary 800-pound (360-kilogram) lander will use its 6 foot (1.8 meters) robotic arm to place a mechanical mole and seismometer on the ground.
The self-mating mole will bury down at a distance of 5 meters to measure the internal heat of the planet, while the ultra-high-tech seismometer listens to possible marsquakes. Nothing like this has been tried before in our smaller neighbor, nearly 100 million miles (160 million kilometers) away. Experiments have never been moved from the spacecraft to the actual Mars surface in a robotic manner. No lander has digged more than a few centimeters and no seismometer has ever worked on Mars.
By looking at the deepest, darkest interior of Mars – still preserved from the earliest days – scientists hope to create 3D images that could reveal how the rocky planets of our solar system formed 4.5 billion years ago and why they turned out to be so different to be. One of the big questions is what has made the earth so hospitable for life. Mars once had flowing rivers and lakes; the delta & # 39; s and lakebedden are now dry and the planet is cold. Venus is an oven because of its thick, heat-trapping atmosphere. Mercury, closest to the sun, has a surface that is positively baked.
The planetary know-how acquired from InSight's $ 1 billion, a two-year operation, could, according to Banerdt, even result in rocky worlds outside of our solar system. The findings on Mars can help to explain the kind of conditions in these so-called exoplanets "and how they fit into the story we're trying to figure out for how planets form," he said.
InSight has no life-detecting ability and concentrates on planetary building blocks. That will be left to future robbers. NASA's Mars 2020 mission, for example, will collect stones for a final return that could contain the old life. Because it's been so long since NASA's latest Mars landing – the Curiosity Rover in 2012 – Mars mania is not just space and science community, but everyday people moving.
Viewing parties is planned from coast to coast in museums, planetariums and libraries, as well as in France, where the InSight seismometer was designed and built. The giant NASDAQ screen at Times Square in New York begins an hour before InSight & # 39; s broadcast scheduled NASA at 3:00 PM. EST touchdown; including the Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Air and Space Museum at Chantilly, Virginia, and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. The InSight spacecraft was built in the Denver area by Lockheed Martin.
But the real action, at least on Earth, will take place at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, the home of InSight's flight control team. NASA offers a special 360-degree online broadcast from the control center. Confirmation of the touchdown can take several minutes or hours. At least there is a communication delay of eight minutes between Mars and the Earth.
A few briefcase-size satellites behind InSight since its launch in May will try to transmit its radio signals to Earth with a potential delay of less than nine minutes. These experimental CubeSats fly right past the red planet without stopping. Signals could also travel directly from InSight to radio telescopes in West Virginia and Germany. It will take longer to hear NASA & # 39; s Mars jobs.
Project manager Tom Hoffman said that he does his best to stay calm while the hours are up. As soon as InSight calls home from the surface of Mars, he expects him to behave in the same way as his three young grandsons did during the Thanksgiving dinner, running around like crazy and screaming. "Just to warn someone around me … I will unleash my inner 4-year-old about you, so be careful," he said.
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