NASA’s new Mars lander InSight is on final approach to the Red Planet, and is expected to begin its landing procedure beginning about 3 pm EST (2000 GMT) on Monday, Nov. 26, 2018. NASA personnel affiliated with the InSight mission confirmed the mission status during a pair of news conferences held Nov. 21.
As of that news conference, the spacecraft had traveled about 295 million miles (475 million kilometers) of the 301 million miles (484 million km) that will make up its total journey. But one of the most serious hurdles remains, the entry, descent and landing process, which will begin at about 3 p.m. EST (2000 GMT) on Monday (Nov. 26).
“My heart is beating inside of my chest like a drum,” NASA project manager Tom Hoffman said during the news conference. “While everybody’s off having turkey tomorrow, there will be a bunch of people here at JPL [NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory] working all day long, hopefully taking a little bit of a break for a turkey dinner, but largely working to make sure we land successfully on Mars.”
Part of that work will include checking the spacecraft’s flight path to figure out if it needs any more little nudges to get it into the correct entry for its final landing trajectory. They’ve already given it four other tiny adjustments since it was launched on May 5 of this year, one of which went so well that an additional maneuver was skipped as unnecessary. There is one more opportunity for a final adjustment on Nov. 25, and NASA may skip that one too.
There’s a lot at stake. The landing process only lasts seven minutes, but a lot can go wrong while you’re trying to decelerate from an initial speed of 12,000 mph down to just 5 mph at the moment of landing. Fortunately, everything is going extremely well. The dust storms that have been sweeping the surface of Mars have mostly died down, and the landing site selected for InSight, Elysium Planitia, has been particularly calm. “For the last month or so, things have been looking really good,” Rob Grover, who is overseeing the entry, descent and landing phase, said during the news conference. “We’re expecting a very plain day on Mars for the landing, and we’re very happy about that.”
It will take about sixteen minutes for the kicked up dust to settle ater the landing. At that point, InSight has to deploy circular solar arrays with which to collect power from the sun. Insight gets a total of four tries to get this right, and hopefully one of them will work, because the lander only has enough on-board battery to power it for a single Martian day. After that, it’s lights out if the deploy action doesn’t work.
There will be about six hours of nail biting before the ground crew finds out whether the lander is happy and healthy, as they’ll have to wait until the 2001 Mars Odyssey orbiter is in position to relay that confirmation back to earth.
A pair of tiny satellites that traveled with InSight, called Mars Cube One or MarCO, may ease the wait. The two small companions carry test technology that, if all goes well, will relay signals from the lander straight back to Earth, bypassing the large Mars orbiters.
The rest of us will hear about the landing later on Nov. 26, when NASA holds a news conference after the fact, sometime after 5 p.m. EST (2200 GMT). Until then, as Philippe Laudet, who leads the seismometer project on InSight, said when wrapping up his portion of the news conference, it’s “Goodbye, thank you, and see you on Mars next week!”
The lander, built by Lockheed Martin, is meant to perform experiments relative to the interior of Mars. The name is an acronym, and it stands for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (we think that as acronyms go, it’s a bit of a stretch, but they built the thing, so they get to name it whatever they want). It’s not a rover, so whatever part of Mars it happens to hit, that’s where it will live for the duration of the mission and where all its work will be done.
Once it’s in place, though, it has a robotic arm that’s almost six feet long to help it place and manipulate experiments on the ground around it, including a heat probe that will burrow up to five meters below the surface, and a seismometer to detect the natural vibrations in the Martian crust. This is the first time we have really delved below more than just the first couple of inches of soil on the surface of Mars, and while NASA has made some educated guesses as to what they may learn, Mars will almost certainly be full of surprises.
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