Mars InSight: NASA's New Mission to the Red Planet About to Attempt Daring Touchdown (VIDEOS AND PICTURES)
Six years after NASA's Curiosity rover landed on Mars in what has gone down in history as the seven minutes of terror, scientists are about to attempt to land a new spacecraft on the Red Planet, ABC News Reported.
The Mars InSight lander, which blasted off in May, is due to touchdown tomorrow morning (November 27) just before 7:00am AEDT.
Its landing won't be quite as nail-biting as Curiosity's, but it is still risky, said the mission's deputy lead, Sue Smrekar, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
In 2016, the European Schiaparelli lander, the only spacecraft to attempt to land on the planet since Curiosity, crashed and burned.
If the Mars InSight landing succeeds, it will be the first spacecraft to study the Red Planet's inner secrets.
"We've had many missions that have looked at the surface of Mars, but we're the first one that is really going to tell us about the interior of Mars," she said.
The craft: A dinner table with a steampunk claw
The InSight lander — short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport — is very different to the Mars rovers.
"We do not have wheels — we actually need to stay in one place and be as quiet as possible," Dr Smrekar said.
About the size of a dinner table with two solar panels attached, the InSight lander is designed to take Mars's pulse and temperature.
The craft is kitted out with a 1.8-metre robotic arm or "steampunk claw" that can delicately place two experiments — a 20-centimetre, dome-shaped seismometer, and a heat probe — into position.
"This is super-important stuff for us," Dr Smrekar said.
Viking 2, a previous mission to Mars did have a seismometer, but it stayed on the deck of the spacecraft.
"Basically it detected gusts of wind that made the lander shake, but you can't really detect seismic waves using that configuration [on the spacecraft]," Dr Smrekar said.
"So, for the first time we've got a seismometer and actually placed it on the ground."
The mission: Marsquakes and rocky cores
The seismometer will measure Marsquakes — subtle vibrations caused by internal rumblings, meteorites smashing into the planet or dust storms whipping across the surface, explains Katarina Miljkovic, an Australian-based scientist on the project.
"The seismometer will sit there and listen to any shakes and quakes that are coming off the interior," said Dr Miljovovic, from Curtin University.
Observing the seismic waves bouncing around Mars will give the scientists an idea of what the internal structure of the planet looks like. This, in turn, can help us understand how rocky planets formed.
The heat probe, which can burrow 5m into the ground, could also give us more clues about the potential habitability of Mars, Dr Smrekar said.
"Understanding where water can be found is certainly a function of the temperature underground, so that will certainly help us in constraining what environments might be useful for finding either ice or possibly even liquid water," she said.
The craft will also have a radio antenna that can measure the planet's wobble.
The destination: The most boring place on Mars…
The InSight lander is heading for the Elysium Planitia, just 600km away from Curiosity.
But don't be fooled by the exotic name. This place is "the flattest, safest, most boring landing site ever on Mars," Dr Smrekar said.
The volcanic plain is located near the equator, which guarantees the craft will have enough solar energy.
It is low enough to have enough atmosphere to slow the craft down on entry.
And finally, there aren't many rocks.
"We don't want our spacecraft to land on rocks — and when we put our heat flow probe down to burrow underground, we also don't want to have rocks in the subsurface," Dr Smrekar explained.
The landing: 6.5 minutes in the dark
Once InSight hits Mars's atmosphere, it will take just 6.5 minutes to land.
But the scientists won't know what happened until they get the first signals back, approximately eight minutes later — the time it takes for a signal to travel at the speed of light from Mars to Earth.
"We can't command anything while this is happening. We have to just rely on getting the sequence of commands correct in advance," Dr Smrekar said.
From the time it hits Mars's atmosphere — travelling at a speed of around 19,800 km per hour — it will go through a series of steps.
Drag on the heat shield will slow the craft down, then it will release a parachute and float down towards the surface.
When it gets close to the surface, it will ditch the parachute and heat shield and fire up rockets.
As it goes through those steps, two mini satellites known as the Mars Cube One or MarCO satellites will be riding shotgun, relaying signals at each phase back to ground stations on Earth.
"So if everything goes well with those CubeSats — we do have other ways of getting the data back if for some reason something goes wrong there — they'll be our first opportunity to get that data and confirm we've landed safely," Dr Smrekar said.
They'll also send the first fuzzy image taken by the InSight lander back to the Deep Space Network.
If the landing succeeds, the team will spend the next couple of months choosing where to place the instruments, which will stay in place for at least two Earth years (one Mars year).
They'll take photos of the landscape to get information about slopes and rock height and take temperature data.
"We want to put our instruments down in the optimal place," Dr Smrekar said.
This will take time as the data is sent up via another spacecraft orbiting Mars, called the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
"Then we'll start acquiring data for the rest of the Mars year," Dr Smrekar said.
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