Martian impossible! Nasa scientists brace for ‘six and a half minutes of terror’ as robot spaceship travelling at 12,300mph tries to land on the Red Planet to explore its hidden secrets
- A $1billion Nasa Mars probe has been travelling through space for six months
- Tonight, if all goes well, the InSight probe will touch down on the Red Planet
- Experts hope the mission will unlock geological secrets of Mars’ hidden core
It’s been travelling through space for six months – but a $1billion Mars probe’s mission will tonight come down to ‘six-and-a-half minutes of terror’.
Nasa’s latest spacecraft is due to begin its descent to the Red Planet’s surface just before 8pm – with helpless scientists watching the final few moments.
All being well, the InSight probe should enter the Martian atmosphere at 12,300mph before an array of 12 thrusters attempts to slow it down to 5mph for a safe touchdown.
It’s been travelling through space for six months – but a $1billion Mars probe’s mission will tonight come down to ‘six-and-a-half minutes of terror’
Experts hope the mission will be the first to unlock geological secrets of the planet’s hidden core, using a probe to dig 16ft (5m) beneath the surface.
A seismometer containing sensors designed and made at Imperial College in London and tested at Oxford University will also examine the impact of earthquakes and meteorite strikes.
But before that work begins, Nasa mission control in Pasadena, California, must endure what staff described as ‘six-and-a-half minutes of terror’ between 7.47pm and 7.54pm as they monitor the final moments of the probe’s descent from 300million miles away.
Pictured: An artist’s impression of Nasa’s InSight lander about to touch down on Mars
This composite photo was created from over 100 images of Mars taken by Viking Orbiters in the 1970s
Landings have proved a difficult hurdle for many missions. The Soviet Union never managed to land on Mars, and both attempts by the European Space Agency flopped.
By contrast, just one of Nasa’s previous eight attempts have failed. InSight, which blasted off from California in May, will rely entirely on its on-board computer to make last-second landing adjustments.
The eight-minute time delay with Earth means scientists will be as powerless as the hundreds watching the mission live on TV.
Alongside their sophisticated instruments there will be a good luck charm – a jar of peanuts.
Ever since Nasa ended a run of unsuccessful missions in 1964 while anxious engineers munched on the snack, filling up the jar has been a key stage of each project.
‘That’s one of our traditions,’ said lead engineer Rob Grover. ‘We’ve had a number of successful landings in a row now. But you never know what Mars will throw at you.’