NASA’s $1 billion Mars probe has begun atmospheric entry above the red planet, in the first step of its risky landing attempt.
The InSight rover has been travelling through space for six months, but its long journey will ultimately boil down to ‘six-and-a-half minutes of terror’ this afternoon as it enters the Martian atmosphere and plants its feet on the surface.
The spacecraft is due to begin its descent to the red planet’s surface just before 3pm EST (8pm GMT), with helpless scientists watching the final few moments.
NASA has begun a live stream to share commentary of the event as the rover approaches its destination. But, the final word rests on reports from Mars orbiters dubbed Wall-E and Eve, which will beam back data once the landing is complete.
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’
The whole process, from the point of entry, will be all said and done in roughly eight minutes – and if successful, InSight’s touchdown will be the space agency’s 8th landing on Mars.
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.
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.
Nasa ‘s latest spacecraft is due to begin its descent to the Red Planet’s surface just before 8pm GMT (3pm EST) – with helpless scientists watching the final few moments. Pictured: An artist’s impression of Nasa’s InSight lander about to touch down on Mars
HOW WILL INSIGHT LAND ON MARS?
Before the InSight lander can begin its job on Mars, it will have to survive a treacherous re-entry and landing through the planet’s atmosphere.
After travelling over 300 million miles in space and reaching the martian atmosphere, the InSight spacecraft only has seven minutes to land safely on the surface — often referred to as the most treacherous stage of the mission, according to the agency.
It will reach up to 14,000 miles per hour as it descends through the atmosphere.
The robotic geologist – designed to explore Mars’ mysterious insides – must go from 12,300 mph (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, AP reports.
‘Landing on Mars is one of the hardest single jobs that people have to do in planetary exploration,’ noted InSight’s lead scientist, Bruce Banerdt.
‘It’s such a difficult thing, it’s such a dangerous thing that there’s always a fairly uncomfortably large chance that something could go wrong.’
It’s shooting for Elysium Planitia, a plain near the Martian equator that the InSight team hopes is as flat as a parking lot in Kansas with few, if any, rocks.
This is no rock-collecting expedition. Instead, the stationary 800-pound (360-kilogram) lander will use its 6-foot (1.8-meter) robotic arm to place a mechanical mole and seismometer on the ground.
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.
InSight stands to ‘revolutionize the way we think about the inside of the planet,’ said NASA’s science mission chief, Thomas Zurbuchen.
But first, the 800-pound (360-kilogram) vehicle needs to get safely to the Martian surface.
Nasa mission control in Pasadena, California, will 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. Artist’s impression pictured
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. An artist’s impression of its Mars entry is pictured
This time, there won’t be a ball bouncing down with the spacecraft tucked inside, like there were for the Spirit and Opportunity rovers in 2004.
And there won’t be a sky crane to lower the lander like there was for the six-wheeled Curiosity during its dramatic ‘seven minutes of terror.’
‘That was crazy,’ acknowledged InSight’s project manager, Tom Hoffman.
But he noted, ‘Any time you’re trying to land on Mars, it’s crazy, frankly. I don’t think there’s a sane way to do it.’
No matter how it’s done, getting to Mars and landing there is hard – and unforgiving.
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. Artist’s impression pictured
INSIGHT’S THREE KEY INSTRUMENTS
The rover that could reveal how Earth was formed: InSight Rover set for Mars landing on november 26th
Three key instruments will allow the InSight rover to ‘take the pulse’ of the red planet:
Seismometer: The InSight lander carries a seismometer, SEIS, that listens to the pulse of Mars.
The seismometer records the waves traveling through the interior structure of a planet.
Studying seismic waves tells us what might be creating the waves.
On Mars, scientists suspect that the culprits may be marsquakes, or meteorites striking the surface.
Heat probe: InSight’s heat flow probe, HP3, burrows deeper than any other scoops, drills or probes on Mars before it.
It will investigate how much heat is still flowing out of Mars.
Radio antennas: Like Earth, Mars wobbles a little as it rotates around its axis.
To study this, two radio antennas, part of the RISE instrument, track the location of the lander very precisely.
This helps scientists test the planet’s reflexes and tells them how the deep interior structure affects the planet’s motion around the Sun.
Earth’s success rate at Mars is a mere 40 percent. That includes planetary flybys dating back to the early 1960s, as well as orbiters and landers.
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.’