NASA's Mars InSight is landing today

Greg Lawrence
November 27, 2018

If all goes according to plan, the lander will drop softly onto the red dirt of a flat, boring equatorial plain called Elysium Planitia at about 5 miles per hour (8 km/h) - slightly faster than walking speed.

The 800-pound lander, which aimed for an afternoon touchdown, must go from 12,300 miles per hour to zero in six minutes flat as it penetrates the Martian atmosphere, deploys a supersonic parachute, fires its descent engines and - hopefully - lands on three legs.

InSight undergoes final preparations at Vandenberg Air Force Base ahead of its launch on May 5, 2018.

InSight lander - the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport - is the United States space agency's first craft dedicated to peer beneath Mars' surface and monitor its interior. Up to now, the success rate at the red planet was only 40 percent, counting every attempted flyby, orbital flight and landing by the U.S., Russian Federation and other countries since 1960.

SEIS, the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure, is InSight's "marsquake" detector, and at this moment, it is now resting on the deck of the lander, up off the ground.

The InSight lander aimed for a touchdown Monday afternoon, as anxiety built among those involved in the $1 billion worldwide effort. "And we're going to stay vigilant".

InSight is expected to touch down at 2.54pm ET, but we won't know until seven minutes later - given the time it takes for messages to transmit from Mars to Earth - if the landing was successful. The entry, descent, and landing phases will each emit a slightly different radio frequency, enabling engineers to track InSight's progress. Once slowed, it will jettison its heat shield and then its landing legs will unfold and lock into place. The entire landing will have already taken place - and succeeded or failed - before we even know it has begun.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, presiding over his first Mars landing as the space agency's boss, said: "What an incredible day for our country". "We have no ability to actually, kind of, fly the lander to the surface".

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"Landing on Mars is one of the hardest single jobs that people have to do in planetary exploration", noted InSight's lead scientist, Bruce Banerdt.

The InSight is planning to go where no space robot has gone before: underneath Mars.

Flight controllers announced that the spacecraft InSight touched down Monday, after a perilous supersonic descent through the red Martian skies.

It will take two to three months for InSight's robotic arm to set the mission's instruments on the surface. This spot is open, flat safe and boring, which is what the scientists want for a stationary two-year mission.

An artist's rendition of the InSight operating on the surface of Mars.

The device is due to burrow about 16 feet underground like a mole to collect heat samples and determine whether the planet has any formative characteristics similar to Earth. By carefully analyzing slight changes in the radio signals from the spacecraft as Mars rotates on its axis and sweeps along its orbit, scientists can precisely locate the martian polar axis and measure how it slowly changes orientation.

According to NASA, everything about the landing went perfectly, as planned, with the lander and the MarCO cubesats performing right on schedule. Still, this second largest volcanic region on Mars is an ideal place for InSight to land because of the science it is created to perform.

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