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Mission to Mars will allow for robotic exploration

Posted November 25, 2018 2:25 p.m. EST
Updated November 26, 2018 12:05 p.m. EST

— Mars’ robotic population is set to increase by one on Monday afternoon with the landing of the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission.

InSight is the first mission dedicated to studying the deep interior of Mars, the first to place a seismometer directly on the surface of another planet and will probe 15 time deeper than any previous mission.

After a 269 million mile journey that began in May from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, InSight will be aiming for a rectangle at the top Martian atmosphere just 6 miles by 15 miles, and doing it at 12,300 miles per hour. That's like scoring a soccer goal from about 80,000 miles away, and doing it at an exactly 12 degree angle to prevent burning up or skipping off the atmosphere.

Mars’ atmosphere is thin, just 1% of the Earth’s, but since the beginnings of the Mars exploration program in 1965, NASA has figured out how to use that atmosphere to its advantage.

Friction between the atmosphere and InSight’s heat shield reduces nearly 99.5% of that keltic energy.'

InSight mission landing

That heat shield is thicker than on previous missions to protect the mission from heavy dust in the atmosphere/ InSight’s engineers built the lander with dust storms in mind. The landing team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif worked through the weekend monitoring weather reports from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).

The lander will still be traveling at Mach 1.66 when a 39 foot wide parachute deploys, slowing the spacecraft to about 135 miles per hour. Retrorockets fire to slow the descent about 5 miles per hour. As the surface pushes up on the lander’s legs, a trigger sensor will be depressed shutting down the rockets. The legs and suspension gently absorb the remainder settling InSight down for a mission that is planned to last until at least November 24, 2020.

All this happens in less than 7 minutes without any help from engineers and scientists back at JPL. Mars is 8 light minutes away.

After landing, InSight will send a tone beacon indicating its status. Radio telescopes in Green Bank, West Virginia and Effelsberg, Germany will be listening. MRO will be in position to receive the transmissions during InSight’s entry, descent and landing.

InSight landing thrust

Then the team will allow the dust to settle (literally) for about 15 minutes to avoid having any more than necessary settle on the landers solar panels as they unfurl like a handheld fan 30 minutes after landing. NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter will help verify this as it flies over the landing site.

NASA makes it look easy, but landing on Mars is hard. Eight of the nine spacecraft successful landed on Mars have NASA logos on the side. The Soviet Union’s Mars 3 did reporting back its landing at a jarring 46 miles per hour in a dust storm. Communications stopped less than 20 seconds later and neither it nor the small rover it was to deploy were heard from again.

Landing coverage begins on NASA TV at 2 p.m. Eastern.

The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences is also hosting a viewing event beginning at 2 p.m with live views from mission control at JPL I’ll be joining Museum astrophysicist Rachel Smith, Ph.D., with more information about the mission, its instruments, and what we hope to learn about what lies inside the red planet.

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