After about six months of travel, NASA’s Mars InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) spacecraft is all set to land on the red planet on “Cyber Monday,” announced officials during a live-streamed news conference on Nov. 21.
The Thanksgiving holiday and weekend will be a very busy few days for the mission team, who will have to constantly monitor the weather on Mars and data from the Insight to prepare for any final corrections that may need to be implemented for a successful landing.
“Landing on Mars is hard. It takes skill, focus, and years of preparation,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said in a statement.
“Keeping in mind our ambitious goal to eventually send humans to the surface of the Moon and then Mars, I know that our incredible science and engineering team—the only in the world to have successfully landed spacecraft on the Martian surface—will do everything they can to successfully land InSight on the Red Planet.”
The InSight will be the first NASA spacecraft to land on Mars since the Curiosity rover in 2012. Its mission is to study the interior of the planet to learn more about the crust, mantle, and core.
The spacecraft originally took off from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in Central California in May and reportedly had a smooth flight. The InSight team is led by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California.
However, the last few minutes before the InSight makes its soft landing on the surface of Mars are the most critical. It will have to decelerate from 12,300 mph to 5 mph in less than seven minutes within the Martian atmosphere.
“There’s a reason engineers call landing on Mars ‘seven minutes of terror,'” Rob Grover, InSight’s entry, descent, and landing (EDL) lead said in the statement.
“We can’t joystick the landing, so we have to rely on the commands we pre-program into the spacecraft. We’ve spent years testing our plans, learning from other Mars landings and studying all the conditions Mars can throw at us. And we’re going to stay vigilant till InSight settles into its home in the Elysium Planitia region.”
Only 40 percent of all missions to Mars have had successful landings, according to Business Insider, and only spacecraft from the United States have survived the notorious “seven minutes of terror.”
The mission includes two additional spacecraft called Mars Cube One (MarCO), which are being tested as communications devices and will make a special flyby on Nov. 26. If everything goes as planned, the MarCOs will only take a few seconds to receive data from InSight and send it back to Earth at the speed of light, giving the team more clues about the actual landing of InSight.
“Those will actually be giving us real-time information as we go through the entry, decent, and landing process, getting through the parachute deployment, heat shield separation. MarCo’s going to be telling us hopefully real-time that that’s happening,” said Tom Hoffman, InSight Project Manager.
After the Mars InSight safely makes a soft landing on the surface of the planet, engineers will begin to activate the craft’s scientific instruments, which is expected to take around three months.
“Previous missions haven’t gone more than skin-deep at Mars,” added Sue Smrekar, the InSight mission’s deputy principal investigator at JPL in the statement. “InSight scientists can’t wait to explore the heart of Mars.”
Viewers can watch the live-streamed landing of the InSight spacecraft on Mars on Monday at around 11:00 a.m. PST here.
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