NASA scientists are freaking out over Mars rover landing

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The descent will take just over 6 minutes, less than the "7 minutes of terror" made famous by the Curiosity rover.

The terror? Well, as NASA engineers have explained, when it comes to Mars landings they often need everything to be in ideal sequence during that tiny timeframe for things to go right.

InSight will spend 24 months - about one Martian year - using seismic monitoring and underground temperature readings to unlock mysteries about how Mars formed and, by extension, the origins of the Earth and other rocky planets of the inner solar system. Although the Associated Press notes that the US has pretty good track record of seven successful landings and only one failure. InSight represents NASA's ninth attempt to put a spacecraft on Mars; only one effort failed.

Phoenix, however, was a great success, and the stationary lander outlasted NASA's expectations, surviving almost double the 90 Martian sols planned for the mission before succumbing to dust and cold in a way that we fervently hope the Opportunity rover has not. "On Mars, when we start getting these Marsquakes, they're going to be telling us where there's stuff going on on Mars, where the forces are concentrating, and I think that's going to tell us something that was probably completely absent from our models".

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, already in orbit around Mars, will record data from the landing attempt for future analysis, while the MarCO CubeSats will relay real-time information as the spacecraft descends.

The InSight is carrying two main science instruments - a burrowing heat probe and a trio of highly sensitive seismometers - to help mission scientists map the Martian insides in unprecedented detail over the next two Earth years, according to

The site chosen for InSight is called Elysium Planitia.

But InSight will explore far beyond that, sinking a "self-hammering" probe that will dig itself into the ground to a depth of 10 to 16 feet (3 to 5 meters), for experiments measuring how the rock in the planet's interior conducts heat. If InSight comes into too shallow, the spacecraft could skip off the thin atmosphere, and an entry angle that is too steep would produce too much thermal heating. The findings on Mars could help explain the type of conditions at these so-called exoplanets "and how they fit into the story that we're trying to figure out for how planets form", he said.

And if you're more of an explorer kind of person and not so interested in Martian geology, it will also tell us how warm the planet is at modest depths, which will tell us if there is any chance of liquid water on the planet. The InSight spacecraft was built near Denver by Lockheed Martin. Mars is 8 light minutes away.

The monitoring and adjustments to InSight's path will continue until the last minute.

InSight will also deploy a seismometer to monitor earthquakes, which will also uncover information about the Red Planet's interior.

Not 20 minutes after, hopefully, safely making its way onto the surface, InSight will get to work.

InSight's main mission is to gather data about Mars' interior, which is why Hoffman isn't bothered by the boring terrain. But InSight is expected to yield the first meaningful data on planetary seismic tremors beyond Earth.

The Associated Press Health & Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Department of Science Education.