More than six months and 300 million miles since it was launched from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, the NASA InSight lander is due to reach Mars on Monday to study the red planet.
NASA's study of Mars has focused on the surface of the planet and the possibility of life at an early stage in its history. In contrast, the InSight mission, the name is a compression of interior exploration using seismic investigations, geodesy and heat transport, will study the mysteries of the deep interior of the planet, with the objective of answering geophysical questions about its structure, composition and how it was formed .
When is the landing?
The touchdown is expected to occur in 2:54 p.m. Eastern Time.
To be precise, that is the "time of reception of the Earth": when the signal that informs of the landing arrives at the Earth (and the applause in the control room begins).
The actual landing is scheduled to occur at 2:47 p.m. The radio signal then has to travel 91 million miles to Earth from Mars, arriving about 8 minutes later. (the amount of time it takes for light to travel here).
How can I continue the landing?
Sometime after 5 p.m., the space agency will hold a press conference to discuss how everything was.
NASA has also organized parties throughout the country, including meetings at the Central Library of Los Angeles, the Adler Planetarium in Chicago and the American Museum of Natural History in New York. York – Where people can see the landing with other Mars enthusiasts.
Why is it so difficult to land on Mars?
The InSight spacecraft will travel at 12,300 miles per hour when it enters the top of Mars' atmosphere, approximately 80 miles above the surface. (That's more than 200 miles per second). Six and a half minutes later, you will travel 0 miles per hour, resting on the ground. That's true. (NASA's spacecraft navigators are really good, they will not miss Mars).
The difficult part is to land in one piece and in working conditions. To date, NASA is the only space agency that has accomplished that feat.
The very fine air of Mars makes landing particularly challenging. There is enough air for the friction of the molecules to heat parts of the exterior of InSight to 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit (hot enough to melt the steel) but not enough air for the resistance to slow the ship down a lot.
Therefore, the InSight landing vehicle will use a series of mechanisms (a heat shield, parachutes and rocket motors) to reduce the speed. It is reaching the Martian surface at a speed of 5 miles per hour. Sixteen minutes later, to allow time for the dust to come out of the landing to settle, the spacecraft would deploy its solar panels.
NASA engineers know that the system can work. The InSight design is almost identical to the Phoenix Mars landing that was successfully established on Mars in 2008.
Where on Mars is InSight landing?
The landing place has the idyllic name Elysium Planitia, near the equator in the northern hemisphere. Mission scientists have described the region as a parking lot or "Kansas without corn."
That is intentional. Because the mission is not interested in rocky terrain or beautiful sunsets, the planners chose the flattest and safest place the spacecraft could land on.
What do scientists hope to learn?
How often does the soil tremble with the marsquakes? How big is the molten core inside Mars? How thick is the crust? How much heat is flowing above the Disintegration of radioactive elements in the core of the planet? These are some of the questions that mission scientists hope to answer.
InSight carries two main instruments: a dome-shaped package containing seismometers and a heat probe that is buried approximately 16 feet down. NASA has spent $ 814 million on InSight. In addition, France and Germany invested $ 180 million to build these major instruments.
Seismometers, which are designed to measure surface movements less than the width of a hydrogen atom, will produce what are essentially sonograms of the entrails of the planet. In particular, scientists are looking to register at least 10 to 12 marsquakes in two years. The tremors on Mars are not caused by plate tectonics, as on Earth. Instead, they are generated when the crust of the planet cracks due to the cooling and contraction of its interior. The seismometers could also detect other seismic vibrations of meteors that hit Mars.
With the data, the scientists hope to reconstruct a three-dimensional image of the interior of the planet.
When does the main scientific part of the mission begin?
Not for a while.
The first five to six weeks will go largely to verify the health of the ship, including its robotic arm. After that, the arm will lift the seismometer dome from the main platform of the lander and place it on the ground. The excavator heat probe will deploy after that and it will take about 40 days to reach its final depth of 16 feet.
The main mission of InSight on the surface is to last almost two years.
What are those two briefcases that fly past Mars on Monday?
Those are not briefcases. They are small spaceships!
NASA is using the InSight mission to test new technologies. Two identical ships known as Mars Cube One, or MarCO for short, were launched with InSight in May. MarCO A and B separated from the InSight cruising stage and have since lagged behind.
Hundreds of miniature satellites known as CubeSats have been launched into orbit around the Earth in recent years, but this is the first time it has been sent to CubeSats on an interplanetary voyage.
The MarCO spacecraft will transmit InSight telemetry to Earth. If that works, an InSight photograph could arrive within minutes of your arrival. But NASA is not trusting MarCO. The data will also be transmitted through two other orbital spacecraft, Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
What other spacecraft are in and around Mars?
In orbit, NASA also has the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Odyssey and Maven. The European Space Agency has Mars Express and the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter. The Space Research Organization of India has the Mars Orbiter Mission, also known as Mangalyaan.
On the surface, NASA currently has the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers, although solar-powered Opportunity has been quiet since the summer, when a global dust storm prevented it from generating enough energy to run. NASA expects the Opportunity to revive now that the skies have cleared.
What missions to Mars are planned for the future?
The year 2020 could be busy.
NASA plans to launch another rover, similar to Curiosity but with a different set of instruments that will look for the basic components of life. A collaboration between the European Space Agency and Russia will launch ExoMars, which will also carry instruments to try to answer if life could have existed on Mars.
China, Japan, the United Arab Emirates and India also intend to launch a spacecraft to Mars in 2020.