Tampa – Seven years of work and a trip of almost seven months were about to be crowned by almost seven minutes of terror when NASA marked the last hours for the landing of the drama of its spacecraft Mars InSight of $ 993 million on Monday.
The goal of Mars InSight is to hear tremors and tremors as a way to discover the inner mysteries of the Red Planet, how it was formed billions of years ago and, by extension, how other rocky planets like Earth took shape.
The unmanned spacecraft is NASA's first to try to land on Earth's next planet since the Curiosity rover arrived in 2012.
More than half of the 43 attempts to reach Mars with rovers, orbiters and probes from space agencies around the world have failed.
NASA is the only space agency that has achieved this, and it invests in these robotic missions as a way to prepare for the first human explorers bound for Mars in the 2030s.
"We never take Mars for granted, Mars is difficult," Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said on Sunday.
The entry, descent and landing phase begins at 11:47 am (1940 GMT / 2140 SA time) at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, where the mission control for Mars InSight is located .
A carefully orchestrated sequence, already completely preprogrammed aboard the spacecraft, takes place during the following minutes, coined "six and a half minutes of terror".
Accelerating faster than a bullet to 12,300 miles (19,800 km) per hour, the armored spacecraft encounters scorching friction as it enters the atmosphere of Mars.
The heat shield rises to a temperature of 2,700 Fahrenheit (around 1,500 degrees Celsius). The radio signals may be lost briefly.
The heat shield is discarded, the three landing legs are deployed and the parachute is launched.
"We have fallen for a moment, which is an absolutely scary thought for me," said Tom Hoffman, InSight project manager.
But then the thrusters start firing, further reducing the speed of the spacecraft to 800 pounds (365 kilograms) at a speed of about 5 mph when it reaches the surface.
Since there is no joystick on Earth for this spacecraft, and there is no way to intervene if something goes wrong, Hoffman described his emotions as mixed.
"I'm completely comfortable and completely nervous at the same time," he said.
"We've done everything we can think to make sure we succeed, but you never know what's going to happen."
Hoffman added that "he has not been sleeping so well", although he said that could be due to his small children, two and four years old.
When the first signal arrives at 2001 GMT, hopefully showing that the lander sank, intact and upright, "at that time I will release my four-year-old boy," he said.
Zurbuchen described InSight as "unique" because the lander at waist level contains instruments contributed by several European space agencies.
The National Space Studies Center of France (CNES) turned the instrument of the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS), the key element to detect earthquakes.
The German Aerospace Center (DLR) provided a hammered auto mole that can be buried 16 feet (five meters) on the surface, farther than any other instrument before, to measure heat flow.
The Center for Astrobiology of Spain made the wind sensors of the spacecraft.
Other significant contributions to the project came from the Space Research Center of the Polish Academy of Sciences and Astronika, the Swiss Institute of Technology, and the British College of London and the University of Oxford.
Together, these instruments will study the geological processes, said Bruce Banerdt, InSight's principal investigator at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
By listening to earthquakes on Mars, whether by earthquakes or meteor impacts or even by volcanic activity, scientists can learn more about its interior and reveal how the planet was formed.
The goal is to map the interior of Mars in three dimensions, "so we understand the inside of Mars and we have come to understand the outside of Mars," Banerdt told reporters.
NASA made a final correction of the course on Sunday night.
With the rest of the landing sequence all preprogrammed, all NASA scientists can do is cross their fingers and hope for the best.
The coverage on the NASA website begins at 11 am (time of 1900 GMT / 2100 SA).