NASA spacecraft lands on red planet after six-month journey

"Indeed it is a heavenly plain, and it is very plain, but it is actually ideal", InSight project manager Tom Hoffman said, "It's safe, it's a great place not only to land, it's a great place to do the science that we want to do". Twenty-three have not. Three have achieved orbit but failed at a landing.

NASA and Lockheed engineers won't know right away whether the spacecraft has made it safely down to the surface-there is a time delay of 8.1 minutes for communications between Earth and Mars at present.

The odds are in NASA's favor, but it will be some time until the world finds out whether the landing is successful. It was launched in May from California, and hurdled 301 million miles through space before reaching Mars.

A parachute will deploy three and a half minutes after InSight enters the atmosphere. An inquiry completed a year ago concluded that onboard computer software errors led to data conflicts, causing the probe to strike Mars at high speed.

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas-V rocket carried NASA's InSight spacecraft, bound for Mars, when it launched in May.

At 3 p.m. ET on Monday, November 26, a group of researchers will be really sweating. There'll be a post-landing news conference at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, set for no earlier than 2 p.m. PT.

Space Center Houston is hosted a watch party at 1601 NASA Parkway in Houston where visitors will be able to view the events as they occur. Radio signals confirming the landing took more than eight minutes to cross the almost 100 million miles between Mars and Earth.

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InSight's third investigation relies on the lander's radio system. "We have 12 small descent engines grouped around the bottom of the lander that are providing the thrust to slow us down the final kilometer".

This explains why the descent will prove to be nerve-racking minutes of terror for Nasa, because the mission managers will have little idea about how the spacecraft will be faring in real time, given the lag in receiving signals. It's hoped that the radio telescopes will pick up those signals, though NASA also has a couple of CubeSats orbiting Mars that could help relay the signals.

"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.

InSight will be landing at Elysium Planitia, called "the biggest parking lot on Mars" by astronomers. Just north of its equator, it's also a great place for InSight's solar panels to generate power for long periods. And although it is dust storm season on Mars, there are presently no dust storms raging across the surface. "But even after landing, we'll need to be patient for the science to begin".

Unlike its roving companions, InSight will not be directly searching for signs of life on Mars.

InSight's primary instrument is a highly sensitive French-built seismometer, created to detect the slightest vibrations from "marsquakes" and meteor impacts.

The $1 billion global effort calls for the robotic geologist to explore Mars' mysterious interior. Only about 40 percent of the landers and rovers sent to the red planet during the last five decades have ever made it safely down to the surface, and of the global space agencies that have tried, only NASA has succeeded in making a soft landing on Mars.

  • Douglas Reid