Published: Mon, November 26, 2018
Sci-tech | By April Francis

Curiosity Tweets Touching Message Ahead Of The InSight Mars Landing

Curiosity Tweets Touching Message Ahead Of The InSight Mars Landing

Engineers at JPL hope to get real-time electronic confirmation of the spacecraft's safe arrival from miniature satellites that were launched along with InSight and will fly past Mars.

InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) is based on 2008's Phoenix Lander, which itself used components left over from the cancelled Mars Surveyor 2001 lander.

The landing is NASA's first attempt since August 2012, when the massive, 2,000-pound Curiosity rover used a unique "sky crane" to land successfully on the surface. This equipment will help mission scientists map the Martian interior in unprecedented detail over the next two Earth years, revealing key insights about the formation and evolution of rocky planets, NASA officials have said.

By mapping what Mars looks like on the inside, the InSight mission could also help to explain the violent processes that shaped other rocky planets in the solar system at the same time, William "Bruce" Banerdt, a research scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and the principal investigator for InSight, said in a video statement.

It can take up to 20 minutes for the spacecraft's signals to reach Earth, leaving mission planners in limbo to find out if everything went according to plan. Thus without MarCO, nervous engineers on Earth could be faced with over an hour's wait for news from InSight.

"To start out with we're behind", Marinan says, "but by the time InSight lands we will be beyond Mars". The intense heating may cause a temporary radio-communications blackout. Once InSight phones home from the Martian surface, though, he expects to behave much like his three young grandsons did at Thanksgiving dinner, running around like insane and screaming. No lander has dug deeper than several inches, and no seismometer has ever worked on Mars. On Sol 44, InSight will deploy its heat probe, and six days later the lander will begin hammering its probe 5 meters down into the Martian surface.

A rendering of the In Sight streaking through Mars' atmosphere
NASA JPL-CALTECHA rendering of the In Sight streaking through Mars' atmosphere

15 seconds later: Six explosive charges blow off the spacecraft's heat shield.

The lander is outfitted with two main science instruments - a burrowing heat probe and a trio of incredibly sensitive seismometers.

As a back-up system, InSight will send one of two tones via a UHF signal to Earth, immediately after touching down. To mark the occasion, NASA will be livestreaming the event on its dedicated TV channel, through its website and on its social media platforms. It will deploy a parachute to soften its landing.

"Certainly, there are always a number of things that could go wrong", said Stu Spath, Lockheed Martin InSight program manager and director of Deep Space Exploration. "We have 12 small descent engines grouped around the bottom of the lander that are providing the thrust to slow us down the final kilometer".

The spacecraft will be landing on Elysium Planitia, a large volcanic plain stretching north of Mars' equator. An inquiry completed previous year concluded that onboard computer software errors led to data conflicts, causing the probe to strike Mars at high speed.

The InSight mission cost about $814 million, including the launch costs; France and Germany invested about $180 million.

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