3:50 PM | *”Seven minutes of terror” on Monday afternoon as NASA spacecraft are set to land on Mars and the landing will be televised*
Landing on Mars is no easy feat. InSight, short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, is the latest NASA probe set to land on Mars--or disintegrate in the attempt. On Monday afternoon, it will tear through the planet's atmosphere in a fireball, shedding more than 12,000 mph of velocity in just under 7 minutes. The interminable stretch from the moment a spacecraft hits the very thin Martian atmosphere to the second it touches down on the Red Planet’s rusty surface, is what scientists call “the seven minutes of terror". In addition, for the first time ever, tiny cubesats are approaching Mars and will be released by the lander. The two tiny spacecraft are officially known as MarCO-A and MarCO-B and they will watch NASA's InSight lander touchdown on the Red Planet relaying updates to Earth in near-real time. If successful, the MarCOs could represent a new kind of communication capability to Earth. They were launched alongside the lander on May 5, 2018.
NASA hopes InSight will gently touchdown just before 3pm ET on Monday afternoon onto the plains of Elysium Planitia - a vast, flat, almost featureless plain near the equator - where it can drill into Mars, using seismometers, heat flow sensors, and radios to study the planet's interior. It is the first outer space robotic explorer to study in-depth the "inner space" of Mars: its crust, mantle, and core. Studying Mars' interior structure answers key questions about the early formation of rocky planets in our inner solar system - Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars - more than 4 billion years ago, as well as rocky exoplanets. InSight also measures tectonic activity and meteorite impacts on Mars today. The lander uses cutting edge instruments, to delve deep beneath the surface and seek the fingerprints of the processes that formed the terrestrial planets. It does so by measuring the planet's "vital signs": its "pulse" (seismology), "temperature" (heat flow), and "reflexes" (precision tracking). Previous missions to Mars have investigated the surface history of the Red Planet by examining features like canyons, volcanoes, rocks and soil. However, signatures of the planet's formation can only be found by sensing and studying its "vital signs" far below the surface.
Early in its history, Mars may have looked a lot like Earth. Magnetization in ancient rocks suggest it had a global magnetic field like Earth’s, powered by a churning mantle and metallic core. The field would have protected the planet from radiation, allowing it to hold on to an atmosphere much thicker than the one that exists today. This in turn likely enabled liquid water to pool on Mars' surface; images from satellites reveal the outlines of long-gone lakes, deltas and river-carved canyons. But the last 3 billion years have been a slow-motion disaster for the Red Planet. The dynamo died; the magnetic field faltered; the water evaporated; and more than half of the atmosphere was stripped away by solar winds. The InSight mission was designed to find out why.
In comparison to the other terrestrial planets, Mars is neither too big nor too small. This means that it preserves the record of its formation and can give us insight into how the terrestrial planets formed. It is the perfect laboratory from which to study the formation and evolution of rocky planets. Scientists know that Mars has low levels of geological activity. But a lander like InSight can also reveal just how active Mars really is.
NASA should know if the lander’s solar arrays have deployed by Monday evening, thanks to recordings from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Within a day, the agency will get its first images of the spacecraft’s landing site — that’s where the science will start. The mission is expected to last about two Earth-years.
NASA will broadcast the landing on NASA TV starting at 2 p.m. ET on Monday, Nov. 26th. Click here.
Meteorologist Paul Dorian