'Six and a half minutes of terror' before Mars landing

The In Sight probe will use three instruments including a seismometer developed in France to study the interior of the planet Mars.                  NASA  JPL-Caltech

The In Sight probe will use three instruments including a seismometer developed in France to study the interior of the planet Mars. NASA JPL-Caltech

Side-by-side illustrations of NASA's Curiosity rover and InSIght Mars lander.

InSight is scheduled to touch down on Mars today (Nov. 26) at 3 p.m. ET, joining Mars' other robotic inhabitants: Curiosity, Opportunity and Spirit (though only Curiosity is now "live", sending signals back to Earth). In 2016 the European Space Agency attempted to put a lander on Mars, but the Schiaparelli probe switched off its retro-rockets too soon and smashed into the ground. This equipment will help mission scientists map the Martian interior in unprecedented detail over the next two Earth years, revealing key insights about the formation and evolution of rocky planets, NASA officials have said.

From there, you'll be able to grip a stranger's hand as NASA waits through the "seven minutes of terror" to safely get the lander on the Red Planet - that's the time when NASA won't be able to control InSight and will instead be relying on commands preprogrammed into the spacecraft.

It can take up to 20 minutes for the spacecraft's signals to reach Earth, leaving mission planners in limbo to find out if everything went according to plan.

"Everything we've done to date makes us feel comfortable and confident we're going to land on Mars", added Hoffman, who's based at JPL.

After a seven-month journey, the lander will scream through the red planet's thin atmosphere at more than 12,000 miles per hour in a live-or-die bid to settle (in one piece) onto a flat area near the equator. A flight version of the Instrument Context Camera (ICC) that took this image is expected to take InSight's first image on Mars.

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Two minutes later, engineers anticipate the heat shield of the plucky lander will hit around 1,500°C, or peak heating.

After that, the spacecraft turns, so its heat shield is pointing in the right direction.

In recent days, NASA has been commanding the spacecraft to make minor course corrections to ensure InSight enters the Martian atmosphere at the proper angle to within about a quarter of a degree. "Mars is hard", said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for the science mission directorate, on Sunday.

"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. The InSight spacecraft was built near Denver by Lockheed Martin. It will only be a series of tones that they send back - the simplest form of information, so the lander can keep focus on its primary job of getting to the surface intact - but the engineers here know how to interpret the meaning of those tones.

It will touch down on a flat, smooth plain close to the planet's equator called the Elysium Planitia - a place where oddball alien hunters claim to have spotted a "crashed UFO" and an "extraterrestrial city". Its two primary instruments, a sensitive seismometer and an underground temperature probe will be measuring tiny fluctuations in the planet's interior. MRO will be in position to receive the transmissions during InSight's entry, descent and landing. 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.

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