NASA's InSight lander to make perilous maneuver to touch down on Mars

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After a 7-month journey, the spacecraft is now preparing for a 7-minute journey through scorching temperatures and traveling at top speeds of more than 12,000 miles per hour to reach the Martian surface. Retrorockets fire to slow the descent about 5 miles per hour. "Going to Mars is really, really hard". NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter will help verify this as it flies over the landing site.

"There is very little room for things to go wrong", said Rob Grover, head of the entry, descent and landing team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) is based on 2008's Phoenix Lander, which itself used components left over from the cancelled Mars Surveyor 2001 lander.

The eight-minute time delay with Earth means scientists will be as powerless as the hundreds watching the mission live on TV. It has the largest volcano in the solar system, but we don't yet know if it's dead and dormant or destined to erupt again.

The spacecraft is not a rover.

InSight was shooting for Elysium Planitia, a plain near the Martian equator that the InSight team hopes is as flat as a parking lot in Kansas with few, if any, rocks.

The power, which NASA reckoned would be enough run a household blender, will drive the three main instruments carried by the lander.

To ensure that InSight doesn't immediately have its solar panels covered in settling dust from the landing, it waits a total of 16 minutes before extending and unfolding its panels. After months and months of travel from Earth the InSight lander is now poised to enter the martian atmosphere and touch down on the dusty surface. This time around, InSight will rely on a heat shield, a parachute and a 12-thruster system developed by Aerojet Rocketdyne in Redmond, Wash. Because the entire landing sequence takes only 6 1/2 minutes, the lander would already be on the ground by the time a signal from Earth arrived.

It is NASA's ninth attempt to land at Mars since the 1976 Vikings. Since 1964, the United States has now launched 23 robotic spacecraft to the red planet at a cost of more than $20 billion in an evolving campaign to map out the red planet's surface, determine the role of water in its history and to search for signs of past habitability and the organic building blocks of life.

NASA’s In Sight lander to study interior of Mars
NASA’s In Sight lander to study interior of Mars

Only 40% of missions sent to the Red Planet by any agency have been successful. "But everything has to go perfectly, and Mars could always throw us a curveball".

"Once we get to the surface, InSight is a slow-motion mission", InSight principal investigator Bruce Banerdt, also of JPL, said during yesterday's news conference.

A NASA spacecraft has landed on Mars to explore the planet's interior.

The instrument, protected from the elements by a dome-shaped shield, is capable of measuring movements smaller than the width of a hydrogen atom.

The size of an SUV, InSight is created to explore the martian interior by sensing "marsquakes".

The 50kg science payload comprises the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS), the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Probe (HP³) and the Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment (RISE).

The InSight mission will also bring several martian "firsts" to interplanetary science, including the first seismometer situated on the surface, to detect and analyze waves created by "marsquakes".

The scientists will also use the lander's communications equipment to measure the wobble of Mars' axial tilt - information that will shed light on the size and nature of the planet's core.

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