25Nov2018

NASA Ready To Land ‘Insight’ Rover On Mars This Tuesday

The probe, with its payload of sensors designed to see deep inside the red planet, has spent the last six months silently whizzing through space. NASA hopes it will be the agency’s next lander to hit Mars’ surface since the Curiosity rover touched down in 2012. Australia will play a key role in communication with the tiny craft after its landing. But first, InSight (short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy, and Heat Transport)  has to survive what NASA dubs the “seven minutes of terror”.

A rendering of the InSight streaking through Mars' atmosphere.

A rendering of the InSight streaking through Mars’ atmosphere. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

After about three minutes of descent, the craft will have slowed to about 385 metres per second. Better, but still way too fast. Eleven kilometres above the ground, InSight will deploy its parachute, further cutting its speed. It will dump its heat shield and extend three robotic legs toward the ground. After two more minutes, InSight will have slowed to just 60 metres per second.

InSight hangs via its parachute in this illustration.

InSight hangs via its parachute in this illustration. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Then comes the trickiest part of the whole landing. InSight will dump its parachute and fire up 12 descent engines – tiny rockets – towards the surface. NASA has picked a barren plain as a landing spot to minimise the chances of InSight ending up on a rock or falling into a crater.
But it takes several minutes for a radio signal to go from Mars to Earth, and several more to send instructions back, far too long for humans to control the landing. InSight has to do it all itself.It will fire its engines while scanning the surface with radar, and try to slowly lower itself to Mars’ rocky surface.
Then – and only then – Glen Nagle, watching a monitor at the Deep Space Communication Complex in Tidbinbilla, Canberra, will let out a sigh of relief. And then he and the team will get to work.

InSight fires its engines for landing.

InSight fires its engines for landing. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

At about 9am, two hours after InSight lands, Tidbinbilla’s huge dishes will be given responsibility by NASA for communicating with InSight. Tidbinbilla will oversee the probe’s deployment of its solar panels, which it will do after waiting 16 minutes for any dust kicked up by the landing to settle.

The team of scientists and communications specialists at Tidbinbilla have been training for this moment for two years, practising worst-case scenarios over and over: What if the signal cuts out?; What if the antennae doesn’t deploy?

“We have gone through all the disaster scenarios, all the things that could possibly go wrong, so we have all our procedures locked down,” says Mr Nagle, outreach lead at the Communications Complex.

The Deep Space Communication Complex in Canberra.

The Deep Space Communication Complex in Canberra. Photo: NASA / Supplied

InSight aims to answer a simple question: Earth and Mars were born of the same rocks. Why did they become so different? The probe will use a seismometer to measure vibrations, allowing us to see what’s deep inside the planet – sort of like an ultrasound. A heat probe will be sunk three metres into the soil to take the planet’s temperature.

The InSight lander on Mars ... if everything goes according to plan.

The InSight lander on Mars … if everything goes according to plan. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

But before any of that activity, at the end of its first long day on Martian soil, as the sun drops behind the horizon, InSight will power down, and catch a few hours shuteye. Source: Sydney Morning Herald

WATCH THE LANDING LIVE HERE

Follow live coverage of NASA’s Mars InSight lander as it enters the Martian atmosphere and touches down on on the surface of Mars.

 

 

 

 

 

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