The quest to understudy the Red Planet continues as NASA is working on landing onMars again soon.
Nasa is preparing to touch down on Mars for the first time in six years in a mission designed to mine more information about the Red Planet.
The US space agency’s latest probe, InSight, is scheduled to land on the planet on Monday, having travelled for six months and 300 million miles.
It is following in the footsteps of the Curiosity rover, which landed there in 2012, but the $1bn joint US-European mission will be breaking new ground, literally and metaphorically.
Just as there was a lot of hype around Curiosity, so too is there much anticipation about InSight, with parties expected to be held around the world to watch the landing at 3pm EST (8pm UK time).
Here’s what you need to know about the landmark mission.
What will InSight do?
Curiosity has been moving around Mars, scouring different areas. InSight, however, will be staying in one place for its two-year mission once it lands.
InSight is short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport. As its lengthy name suggests, its objective is to dig into the planet’s interior.
Once it touches down, its 6-foot (1.8-meter) arm will remove the two main science experiments from the lander’s deck and place them directly on the Martian surface. This is already uncharted territory in space exploration.
In this May 4, 2018 photo, the mobile service tower is rolled back to reveal the United Launch Alliance Atlas-V rocket with NASA’s InSight spacecraft onboard at Vandenberg Air Force Base Credit: AP
One experiment is intended to take Mars’ temperature by drilling down 16 feet (5 meters) into the planet, using a self-hammering nail. That would be a new record for such an experiment, breaking the one set nearly a half-century ago by Apollo moonwalkers, who drilled down 8 feet (2 ½meters).
And just as those astronauts left behind instruments to measure moonquakes, InSight is bringing the first seismometers to monitor for marsquakes – if they exist.
Yet another experiment will calculate Mars’ wobble, providing information about the core of the planet as the sun and its moons pull on Mars.
“It’s got its own brain,” said lead scientist Bruce Banerdt of Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “It’s got an arm that can manipulate things around. It can listen with its seismometer. It can feel things with the pressure sensors and the temperature sensors. It pulls its own power out of the sun.”
With no life detectors on board, its primary objective is not to look for signs of life, past or present. But that’s not to say it won’t be able to provide such clues.
“When InSight drills down into the Martian soil, we’ll learn more about how Mars and Earth formed. We’ll know more about where we all came from, and why these two rocky worlds are so similar yet so different,” Bill Nye, CEO of the nonprofit Planetary Society, said in a statement. “We may learn more about what kinds of planets can harbour life. InSight is more than a Mars mission — it’s a solar system mission.”
Mars is much less geologically active than Earth, and so its interior is closer to being in its original state – a tantalizing time capsule.
InSight stands to “revolutionise the way we think about the inside of the planet,” said Nasa’s science mission chief, Thomas Zurbuchen.
The landing site
InSight is heading for a spot of land called Elysium Planitia, an area that astronomers have described as “the biggest parking lot on Mars”.
A sizable equatorial plain, Tom Hoffman, InSight’s project manager, hopes it’s “like a Walmart parking lot in Kansas.”
Nasa aimed for as flat an area as possible so the lander does not tip over and thereby kill the mission, and so the robotic arm can set the science instruments down.
Two years ago, a European lander came in so fast, its descent system askew, that it carved out a crater on impact.
About seven minutes before it reaches the top of Mars’ atmosphere, the lander will be released from the spacecraft that carried it to Mars.
The 800-pound (360-kilogram) vehicle, ensconced inside its heat-protecting “aeroshell” capsule, will be hurtling into Mars’ atmosphere at a supersonic 12,300 mph (19,800 kph). Leaving a long flaming trail in its wake, temperatures are expected to reach about 1500C.
To slow down, it will be relying on its white nylon parachute and a series of engine firings.
This NASA illustration shows a simulated view of the InSight lander firing retrorockets to slow down as it descends toward the surface of Mars Credit: AFP
A plethora of factors could spell disaster for the spacecraft: wind gusts could send it into a dangerous tumble during descent; the parachute could get tangled; a dust storm could hamper InSight’s ability to generate solar power; a leg could buckle or an arm could jam.
The tensest time for flight controllers in Pasadena, California, will be the six minutes from the time the spacecraft hits Mars’ atmosphere and touches down.