Mars InSight Successfully Lands on Mars
This mosaic of images taken in mid-January 2012 shows the windswept vista northward (left) to northeastward (right) from the location where NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity is spending its fifth Martian winter, an outcrop informally named “Greeley Haven.” (Source: NASA)

Mars InSight Successfully Lands on Mars

(Bloomberg) -- NASA has a date Monday afternoon with what it described as six and a half “minutes of terror,” a high-stakes plunge across the surface of Mars that will hopefully end with a successful landing of the Mars InSight.

After a seven-month journey, the lander will scream through the red planet’s thin atmosphere at more than 12,000 mph in a live-or-die bid to settle (in one piece) onto a flat area near the equator. To succeed, the probe must complete a series of intricately orchestrated maneuvers during a fraught, 6.5-minute “entry, descent and landing” phase covering the final 77 miles. The touchdown is scheduled for about 3 p.m. New York time.

Still flying at supersonic speed, the probe will pop a 39-foot parachute to radically slow its velocity, followed by the jettisoning of the heat shield, the release of landing legs and the initiation of ground radar signals to acquire data on the landing site. The InSight craft is aiming for a flat plain mostly free of rocks called Elysium Planitia, which NASA has dubbed “the biggest parking lot on Mars.”

On Sunday, NASA engineers burned the craft’s thrusters for several seconds to slightly alter InSight’s trajectory, aiming to put the lander about 11 miles closer to its target.

Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab near Los Angeles will be forced to wait eight minutes for confirmation of InSight’s fate. The mission includes two small cube satellites trailing the probe, which are designed to help relay real-time data from the craft back to earth, faster than a NASA satellite orbiting Mars could. The cubesats are a NASA experiment to determine methods of speedier signal transmissions to and from Mars.

Mars InSight Successfully Lands on Mars

The landing is NASA’s first attempt since August 2012, when the massive, 2,000-pound Curiosity rover used a unique “sky crane” to land successfully on the surface.

Once the science begins in January, the InSight mission will seek to answer critical questions about rocky planet formation in the early days of the solar system. The geologic record of Mars is preserved far better than that of Earth, which has active tectonic plates and heat convection from its core, dynamic processes that tend to obliterate physical evidence from eons past.

The InSight mission will also bring several Martian “firsts” to interplanetary science, including the first seismometer situated on the planet’s surface to detect and analyze waves created by “marsquakes.” The stationary lander also carries a six-foot robotic arm and a self-hammering “nail” instrument that will burrow itself 16 feet into the ground to study heat transfer.

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. The InSight’s instrument will be on the ground and is expected to yield much deeper insight on quakes, which are thought to be smaller than 6.0 on the Richter scale. Seismic activity on Mars is thought to come from cracks forming in the crust; the planet’s interior energy is thought to be less intense than Earth’s.

The 800-pound, solar-powered InSight is also the first deep-space vehicle to launch from the U.S. West Coast. NASA is quick to note the paltry success rate—only 40 percent—for Mars missions; the U.S. is so far the only nation that has successfully landed on Mars. “We’re batting about 50 percent or less,” Thomas Zurbuchen, a NASA associate administrator, said Wednesday during a JPL news conference.

In October 2016, the European Space Agency lost its ExoMars Schiaparelli craft during an attempted Mars landing. An inquiry completed last year concluded that onboard computer software errors had led to data conflicts, causing the probe to strike Mars at high speed.

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.

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

An earlier version corrected the timing of descent in headline and first paragraph to reflect that NASA said it would take 6.5 minutes.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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