NASA & # 39; s Mars InSight Landing: Back to the Red Planet Once Again

More than six months and 300 million miles since its launch from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, NASA's InSight lander is due to arrive at Mars on Monday to study the red planet.

NASA's study of Mars has focused on the surface of the planet and the possibility of life in the beginning of its history. By contrast, the InSight mission – the name is a compression of Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport – studies the mysteries of the deep interior of the planet, aimed at answering geophysical questions about the structure, composition and how it has formed.

It is predicted that the landing will take place at 14:54 hours Eastern Time.

To be precise, that is the "Earth reception time" – when the signal that reports the landing arrives on earth (and the beginning of cheering in the control room).

The actual landing is scheduled at 2:47 PM. The radio signal must then travel 91 million miles from Mars to Earth, which arrives about 8 minutes later (the amount of time it takes to travel far).

The very thin sky of Mars makes landing particularly challenging. There is enough air that the friction of the molecules will heat parts of the exterior of InSight to 2700 degrees Fahrenheit – hot enough to melt steel – but not enough air for dragging to slow down the spacecraft.

For example, the InSight lander will use a series of mechanisms – a heat shield, parachutes and rocket motors – to slow down. It must arrive at the surface of Mars at a speed of 5 miles per hour. Sixteen minutes later – to leave time for the dust that landed from the landing to settle – the spacecraft must unlock its solar panels.

NASA technicians know that the system can work. The InSight design is almost identical to that of the Phoenix Mars lander who successfully landed on Mars in 2008.

The landing site has the idyllic name Elysium Planitia, near the equator in the northern hemisphere. Missionary scientists have described the region as a parking space in a parking lot or Kansas without the corn & # 39 ;.

That is deliberate. Because the mission is not interested in rocky terrain or beautiful sunsets, planners chose the flattest, safest place that could land the spacecraft.

How often does the ground shake with marsquakes? How big is the molten core within Mars actually? How thick is the crust? How much heat flows up from the decay of radioactive elements in the core of the planet? These are some questions that mission scientists hope to answer.

InSight has two main instruments: a domed package with seismometers and a heat probe that has to go down by about 16 feet. NASA has spent $ 814 million on InSight. In addition, France and Germany invested 180 million dollars to build these key instruments.

The seismometers, designed to measure surface movements less than the width of a hydrogen atom, will produce what are essentially sonograms from the inside of the planet. In particular, scientists want to record at least 10 to 12 marsquakes over a period of two years. Temblors on Mars are not caused by plate tectonics, such as on earth. Instead, they are generated when the crust of the planet bursts due to the cooling and contraction of the interior. The seismometers can also detect other seismic vibrations from meteors that hit Mars.

With the data, the scientists expect to be able to combine a three-dimensional image of the interior of the planet.

Not for a while.

The first five to six weeks will largely be spent on controlling the health of the spacecraft, including its robotic arm. The arm then lifts the seismometer dome from the main deck of the lander and places it on the ground. The hollow heat probe is then deployed and takes about 40 days to reach the final depth of 16 feet.

The most important mission of InSight on the surface is to last almost two years.

These are not briefcases. They are small spacecraft!

NASA uses the InSight mission to test new technology. Two identical spacecraft, known as Mars Cube One, or simply MarCO, were launched in May with InSight. MarCO A and B are then separated from the cruise phase of InSight and have since fallen behind.

Hundreds of miniature satellites known as CubeSats have been launched into orbit around the earth in recent years, but this is the first time that CubeSats has been sent on an interplanetary voyage.

The MarCO spacecraft will transmit InSight telemetry to the earth. If successful, a picture of InSight can arrive within a few minutes of arrival. But NASA does not trust MarCO. The data will also be transmitted via two others in orbit around the spacecraft, Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

In orbit around the earth, NASA also has the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Odyssey and Maven. The European Space Agency has Mars Express and the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter. The Indian Space Research Organization has the Mars Orbiter Mission, also known as Mangalyan.

At first sight, NASA currently has the curiosity and ability to robbers, although Opportunity on solar energy has been quiet since the summer when a global dust storm made it possible to generate enough power to work. NASA hopes Opportunity will revive now that the airspace has disappeared.

The year 2020 could be busy.

NASA plans to launch another rover, similar to Curiosity, but with a different set of tools that will look for the building blocks of life. A collaboration between the European Space Agency and Russia will launch the ExoMars, which will also carry instruments to try to answer whether life would ever have existed on Mars.

China, Japan, the United Arab Emirates and India are also planning to launch spaceships to Mars in 2020.

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