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NASA’s InSight attempts Mars landing after 6-month journey through space

27 November 2018, 12:46 | Brenda Erickson

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Mars touchdown NASA spacecraft survives supersonic plunge

The robotic geologist - created to explore Mars' insides, surface to core - must go from 12,300 miles per hour (19,800 kph) to zero in six minutes flat as it pierces the Martian atmosphere, pops out a parachute, fires its descent engines and, hopefully, lands on three legs. The mission will be NASA's first landing on the Red Planet since the Curiosity rover in 2012.

A model of the InSight Mars lander at JPL. "Doesn't mean I'm not nervous". As seismic waves from marsquakes travel through the martian interior, they will pass through different types of rock and soil that will alter their shape. 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. Peak heating of the protective heat shield reached 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit two minutes later. The "seven minutes of terror", which are possibly the riskiest in the entire mission, will be when the robotic spacecraft will enter the Martian atmosphere at supersonic speed, then touch down on the red planet's region called Elysium Planitia.

In an extremely tricky landing, the lander slowed down from 12,300mph to 5mph, the equivalent of human jogging speed, in just seven minutes after hitting Mars's atmosphere.

- At 1952 GMT, a radar activates to sense the distance to the ground. Once it lands on Mars, it will stay put.

Here's a minute-by-minute look at the biggest moments of InSight's landing sequence - any of which could doom the robot.

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'That's one of our traditions, ' said lead engineer Rob Grover.

After the landing, scientists will take it slow and steady with the lander and its scientific instruments.

Since there is no joystick back on Earth for this spacecraft, and no way to intervene if anything goes wrong, Hoffman described his emotions as mixed.

The planetary know-how gained from InSight's $1 billion, two-year operation could even spill over to rocky worlds beyond our solar system, according to Banerdt.

Should the diminutive spacecraft prove themselves viable, NASA boffins have said the tech could have applications elsewhere in the solar system and at the very least allow for a "bring your own relay" communications option during the critical touchdown phases. A status report on the panels won't arrive until some 5 hours after landing. "I'm going to unleash my inner 4-year-old on you, so be careful", he said. "After that, we should be in good shape".

You can watch InSight's attempt to land on Mars live on NASA TV.

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The science work won't begin in full for several months, however, because it'll take that long for the team to prepare for the deployment of the seismometer suite and heat probe. Because it won't be roving over the surface, the landing site was an important determination. The station, developed by French partners, will catch rumbles of marsquakes, important for interpreting the planet's interior.

A further three achieved orbit but failed to land.

The heat probe, developed by German partners, will be deployed soon after. The heat probe will measure how much heat is escaping from the planet, and how quickly-a clue to when it was most volcanically active.

"The whole descent under rocket power takes about 40 seconds or so", Grover says.

An artist's conception shows NASA's Mars InSight firing its thrusters for landing.

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