NASA's InSight Mars Landing: a Nail-Biting '6.5 Minutes of Terror'

Muriel Hammond
November 27, 2018

The mechanical three-legged, one-armed mining spacecraft is scheduled to land just before 3 p.m. ET, capping off a trip that started seven months and more than 300 million miles ago. Everyone sighed with relief, but today NASA is doing it all over again, only this time with the InSight lander. It should take about six minutes for InSight to get to the surface and land, slowed by a parachute and descent engines. Radio signals confirming the landing took more than eight minutes to cross the almost 100 million miles between Mars and Earth.

"We've studied Mars from orbit and from the surface since 1965, learning about its weather, atmosphere, geology and surface chemistry", said Dr. Lori Glaze, acting director of the Planetary Science Division in NASA's Science Mission Directorate.

Should the mission be successful, InSight's objective is to study the interior of Mars and gather information about its "vital signs, its pulse, and temperature", according to NASA.

NASA prefers not to talk about Surveyor too much, seeing as the axe was wielded on the unfortunate spacecraft in the aftermath of 1999's Mars Polar Lander mishap, which blotted NASA's otherwise excellent copybook for landing on the Martian surface. Of 45 missions, Nasa considers 18 to have been a complete success. By exploring Mars, InSight will also give us new insights into how the Earth and Moon formed.

After six months of flight, the lander component of the probe will detach itself from the cruise stage and head into the atmosphere.

After a seven-month journey, the lander will scream through the red planet's thin atmosphere at more than 12,000 miles per hour in a live-or-die bid to settle (in one piece) onto a flat area near the equator.

InSight is the first mission dedicated to studying the deep interior of Mars, the first to place a seismometer directly on the surface of another planet and will probe 15 time deeper than any previous mission.

The descent will take just over 6 minutes, less than the "7 minutes of terror" made famous by the Curiosity rover.

As a back-up system, InSight will send one of two tones via a UHF signal to Earth, immediately after touching down.

How will NASA know when InSight lands safely?

InSight will be landing at Elysium Planitia, called "the biggest parking lot on Mars" by astronomers.

"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.

InSight's landing was carefully choreographed. NASA satellites around Mars will provide updates.

The device is due to burrow about 16 feet underground like a mole to collect heat samples and determine whether the planet has any formative characteristics similar to Earth.

SEIS, supplied by France's Centre National d'Études Spatiales (CNES), is a dome-shaped instrument containing three pendulums which will detect the seismic vibrations of Mars.

The mission is expected to last about two Earth years.

So what do we know about the InSight robot, which is armed to the teeth with scientific instruments?

Meanwhile, a radio transmitter will send back signals tracking Mars' subtle rotational wobble to reveal the size of the planet's core and possibly whether it remains molten. Only about 40 percent of the landers and rovers sent to the red planet during the last five decades have ever made it safely down to the surface, and of the worldwide space agencies that have tried, only NASA has succeeded in making a soft landing on Mars.

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