Published: Tue, November 27, 2018
Sci-tech | By Jackie Newman

NASA spacecraft lands on Mars to dig deep

NASA spacecraft lands on Mars to dig deep

It has spent the past 6 months uneventfully cruising through space, making occasional tweaks to its trajectory.

15 seconds later: Six explosive charges blow off the spacecraft's heat shield. At 11:47 a.m., the spacecraft will begin its screaming plunge toward the surface; friction will send temperatures on the heat shield soaring to 1500°C.

If all goes according to plan, it will drop onto the equatorial plain called Elysium Planitia at about 5 miles per hour - but scientists won't know if its solar panels will have deployed until about 8:35 p.m. EST, when NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter will be in position to relay data to Earth.

If successful, the entry, descent and landing of the Mars InSight - created to be the first mission to listen to the interior of another planet and reveal how rocky planets formed - will add another success to NASA's record when it comes to sending spacecraft to Mars. But InSight is heavier than Phoenix, and its landing site is 1.5 kilometers higher, which means there is less atmosphere to slow the spacecraft.

The InSight mission - short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport - is the first ever dedicated to Mars' deep interior, and it will be the first NASA mission since the Apollo moon landings to place a seismometer on the soil of another celestial body. It will slow down until it reaches a consistent 5 miles per hour.

NASA is now focused on its latest Mars probe, InSight, which is scheduled to touch down on the planet's surface Monday.

10 seconds later: InSight's three legs pop out after pyrotechnic charges explode.

Once it lands, the spacecraft will send out a confirmation signal, using a "tone beacon" that mission managers hope will be picked up by radio telescopes.

Migrants march toward US border in show of force
Central American migrants gather in an area designated for them to set up their tents in Tijuana, Mexico, Nov. 21, 2018. In practice, that would bar most asylum seekers who entered Mexico from filing asylum claims in the United States.

For those interested in nerding out and watching the landing, there are several options.

After the landing, scientists will take it slow and steady with the lander and its scientific instruments. As these tremors travel through rock, they reveal the thickness and composition of the planet's internal layers, NASA officials explained in a statement.

At 3 p.m. ET on Monday, November 26, a group of researchers will be really sweating.

The odds are in NASA's favor, but it will be some time until the world finds out whether the landing is successful. A status report on the panels won't arrive until some 5 hours after landing.

"I am completely comfortable and completely nervous at the same time", he said. "We just love that shaking, and so the more shaking it does, the better we can see the inside". The team will check to make sure the instruments can be deployed safely, even if there are rocks nearby or InSight lands at an angle. The lander will remain in place while a robotic arm sets a mechanical mole and a seismometer on the ground. We don't want a slope that's too steep.

Landings have proved a hard hurdle for many missions. The station, developed by French partners, will catch rumbles of marsquakes, important for interpreting the planet's interior.

The 50kg science payload comprises the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS), the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Probe (HP³) and the Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment (RISE). The probe will detect how much heat energy is flowing out of the planet, and where the heat is coming from, expanding our knowledge of how the planet formed and evolved. The thee-legged, one-armed InSight will operate from the same spot for the next two years.

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