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NASA counts down to pivotal Mars landing

AFP, TAMPA, Florida

An artist’s impression obtained from NASA shows what InSight’s descent toward Mars would look like.

Photo: AFP / NASA / JPL-Caltech

NASA is counting down to a nail-biting touchdown on Monday of the US$993 million Mars InSight, the first spacecraft to listen for quakes and study the inner workings of another rocky planet.

No one is on board the spacecraft, which launched nearly seven months ago and has traveled about 482 million kilometers, but part of its mission is to inform efforts to one day send human explorers to the Red Planet, which NASA hopes to do by the 2030s.

The lander is the first to reach Mars since 2012, when NASA’s Curiosity rover touched down to scour the surface and analyze rocks for signs that life forms could once have inhabited Earth’s neighbor, now a frigid and dry planet.

InSight must survive tense entry into Mars’ atmosphere, traveling at 19,800kph and swiftly slowing to just 8kph.

This entry, descent and landing phase begins at 11:47 am in California, and is only half-jokingly referred to at NASA as the “six-and-a-half minutes of terror.”

Of 43 missions launched toward Mars, only 18 have made it intact — a success rate of about 40 percent. All those that made it came from the US.

“Going to Mars is really, really hard,” NASA Science Mission Directorate associate administrator Thomas Zurbuchen said. “The exciting part is we are building on the success of the best team that has ever landed on this planet, which is the NASA team with its contractors and its collaborators.”

The name InSight is derived from “Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport.”

The spacecraft itself stands about waist high, at 1m, and if its solar arrays are deployed they will span 6m.

Fully fueled, InSight weighs more than 360kg, about the same as a Harley Davidson motorcycle.

Its central instrument is a quake-sensing seismometer that was made by French space agency CNES.

“This is the only NASA mission until now which is conceived around a foreign-made instrument,” CNES president Jean-Yves le Gall said. “So it’s a mission that is fundamentally for the United States, for France and for improving our understanding of Mars.”

The six quake sensors on board are so sensitive that they should reveal the smallest tremors on Mars, such as the faint pull of its moon Phobos, impacts from meteors and possibly evidence of volcanic activity.

Seismology has taught humanity much about the formation of Earth about 4.5 billion years ago, but much of the Earth-based evidence has been lost to the recycling of the crust, driven by plate tectonics. This process does not exist on Mars.

The spacecraft also has a self-hammering probe that can burrow as deep as 3m to 5m, offering the first precise measurement of below-ground temperatures on Mars and how much heat escapes from its interior.

InSight was built by Lockheed Martin, and is modeled after the Phoenix spacecraft that landed near the Martian north pole in 2008. Like Phoenix, InSight’s arrival is to be aided by a parachute. It has a heat shield to help slow down the spacecraft and protect against the hot friction of entering Mars’ atmosphere.

The lander must set itself down upright. Then, another critical step is for the solar arrays to deploy, as the lander is to rely entirely on solar power for its one-year mission.

NASA should know within minutes if the landing went well or not, but will have to wait more than five hours for confirmation of the solar array deployment, due to the orbit pattern of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odyssey, which can communicate InSight’s status back to Earth.

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