New lander will add to humans' long fascination with Mars

27 November, 2018, 11:39 | Author: Tara Reeves
  • Mars probe faces daunting challenge to land safely

Traveling 301 million miles (548 million km) from Earth, the Mars InSight spacecraft was due to reach its destination on the dusty, rock-strewn surface of the Red Planet at about 3 p.m. EST (2000 GMT).

An artist's sketch of InSight's descent to Mars.

The attraction is sure to grow with Monday's arrival of a NASA lander named InSight. In about six-and-a-half minutes it will have to slow down to about 5 miles per hour using descent thrusters and a parachute.

Only around four in 10 missions ever sent to the Red Planet by any space agency have been successful, and the U.S. is the only nation whose missions have survived landings.

Even then, engineers will not hear about the experience of InSight during landing until approximately eight minutes after.

Engineers at JPL hope to get real-time electronic confirmation of the spacecraft's safe arrival from miniature satellites that were launched along with InSight and will fly past Mars. It is expected to land on a flat, stable surface on a broad Martian plain called Elysium Planitia.

InSight, or the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, lifted off from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base in May for a six-month journey to the red planet.

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Only 40 percent of missions to Mars have successfully landed on the planet.

"We can't joystick the landing, so we have to rely on the commands we pre-programmed into the spacecraft".

Scientists consider Mars a tantalising time capsule.

InSight's primary instrument is a highly sensitive French-built seismometer, created to detect the slightest vibrations from "marsquakes" and meteor impacts. The probe is equipped with a mechanical mole to tunnel underground to measure internal heat.

Professor Tom Pike from Imperial College London is part of the Mars InSight team which designed sensors to detect marsquakes.

Mars has a nasty habit of living up to its mythological name and besting Earth when it comes to accepting visitors.

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