NASA spacecraft lands on red planet after six-month journey

HeraldScotland

HeraldScotland

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas-V rocket carried NASA's InSight spacecraft, bound for Mars, when it launched in May.

InSight was launched seven months ago, traveling 301,223,981 miles and reaching a top speed of 6,200 mph.

This was NASA's first attempt to land on Mars in six years, and all those involved are understandably anxious. It's hoped that a supersonic parachute, 12 descent engines, and some shock-absorbing legs will slow it down enough for a safe landing.

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).

There will be landing commentary and news briefings from scientists and engineers.

The InSight is planning to go where no space robot has gone before: underneath Mars.

While NASA's twin Viking landers from the summer of 1976 had seismometers to detect marsquakes, those were atop the craft and produced "noisy data", according to JPL.

"We continue to ideal landing techniques using robotic landers on Mars", Clarke said.

Of 43 other worldwide attempts to send orbiters, probes, landers or rovers to Mars, 25 have not made it.

The journey to Mars has been described by NASA engineers as "seven minutes of terror", as more landers have failed than have succeeded.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is ready and waiting for the lander to make its appearance in the martian skies, which it is scheduled to do at approximately 3 p.m. ET today. A minute later, InSight will orient itself for entry before barreling into the thin atmosphere of the red planet, starting at 14:47 EST and travelling at 12,300mph.

"As it burns in the atmosphere, to slow down, it burns the heat shield, there will actually be a communications blackout, where the communications from the spacecraft will not be able to be received here on earth", NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said.

This information will tell us a lot about how Mars formed, which, in turn, will add to the information of how rocky planets, including our own Earth, typically develop.

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. The probe will first touch the atmosphere six minutes and 45 seconds before landing. Almost two dozen other Mars missions have been sent from other nations. The arrival marks the start of a two-year mission to study the heart of Mars-it will peer into the interior of the planet to provide scientists with a more detailed understanding of its crust, mantle and core.

InSight will land near the equator, in the western Elysium Planitia, about 600 km north from where the Curiosity rover is presently located. And Tuesday night, the Mars Odyssey orbiter should confirm that the spacecraft's solar arrays have unfurled. A flight version of the Instrument Context Camera (ICC) that took this image is expected to take InSight's first image on Mars. By carefully analyzing slight changes in the radio signals from the spacecraft as Mars rotates on its axis and sweeps along its orbit, scientists can precisely locate the martian polar axis and measure how it slowly changes orientation.

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