NASA’s InSight Spacecraft To Attempt Mars Landing
Today at 1 p.m. MST, the NASA InSight spacecraft will reach Mars, completing a seven-month journey. It will have traveled 301,223,981 miles at a top speed of 6,200 mph.
The mission is headquartered at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, where engineers are preparing for the spacecraft to enter the Martian atmosphere, descend with a parachute and retrorockets, and touch down. InSight — which stands for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport — will study the deep interior of Mars for the first time.
“We’ve studied Mars from orbit and from the surface since 1965, learning about its weather, atmosphere, geology, and surface chemistry,” said Lori Glaze, acting director of the Planetary Science Division in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, in a press release. “Now, we finally will explore inside Mars and deepen our understanding of our terrestrial neighbor as NASA prepares to send human explorers deeper into the solar system.”
The last stages of the mission require multiple, precise trajectory corrections. Last night, engineers uploaded data commanding the spacecraft to execute a small “burp” in order to correct a misalignment of a mere 11 miles. Also, just prior to entering the Martian atmosphere, they will need to conduct a trajectory correction maneuver to steer the spacecraft toward its entry point over Mars.
Further last minute tweaks by the entry, descent, and landing (EDL) team might be needed based on weather reports from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
“While most of the country was enjoying Thanksgiving with their family and friends, the InSight team was busy making the final preparations for Monday’s landing,” said Tom Hoffman of JPL, InSight’s project manager, in the release. “Landing on Mars is difficult and takes a lot of personal sacrifices, such as missing the traditional Thanksgiving, but making InSight successful is well worth the extraordinary effort.”
Engineers will be huddled with scientists at JPL today, watching with nervous anticipation for signals that InSight successfully touched down.
This kind of mission requires ultimate patience, however, as it will take two to three months for InSight’s robotic arm to place the lander’s instruments on the surface. During that time, engineers will monitor the environment and photograph the terrain in front of the lander.
Back at JPL, the surface operations team will practice setting down the instruments. They’ll use a working replica of InSight in an indoor “Mars sandbox,” which will be sculpted to match the mission’s actual landing site on Mars. The team will check to make sure the instruments can be deployed safely, even if there are rocks nearby or InSight lands at an angle.
Once the final position of each instrument is decided, it will take several weeks to carefully lift each one and calibrate their measurements. Then the science really gets underway.
To watch interviews with experts and NASA’s streaming of the event, go to the agency’s live page.