British space chief 'nervous' about Nasa Insight Mars landing

NASA  JPL-Caltech

NASA JPL-Caltech

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) - With just a day to go, NASA's InSight spacecraft aimed for a bull's-eye touchdown on Mars, zooming in like an arrow with no turning back.

About 20 minutes before landing, InSight separated from the cruise stage that helped bring it all the way to Mars and turned to position itself for entering the atmosphere.

InSight is scheduled to touch down on Mars today (Nov. 26) at 3 p.m. ET, joining Mars' other robotic inhabitants: Curiosity, Opportunity and Spirit (though only Curiosity is now "live", sending signals back to Earth). NASA is quick to note the paltry success rate-only 40 percent-for Mars missions; the U.S.is so far the only nation that has successfully landed on Mars. "Now we finally will explore inside Mars and deepen our understanding of our terrestrial neighbor as NASA prepares to send human explorers deeper into the solar system". You're tuning into the live feed for the sake of the landing, and any additional news is a bonus.

For an added bonus, the MarCO team will attempt to snap pictures of InSight during the landing, however they are unsure if they will actually see anything.

For now, all we can do is watch and hope it lands safely.

InSight also benefits from not being too picky about where it lands. If successful, the landing will be the first touchdown on Mars since 2012, when the Curiosity rover arrived on the planet and began its study of Mars' geologic history and potential for past or present life.

If all goes according to plan, it will drop onto the equatorial plain called Elysium Planitia at about 5 miles per hour - but scientists won't know if its solar panels will have deployed until about 8:35 p.m. EST, when NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter will be in position to relay data to Earth.

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InSight will barrel into the Martian atmosphere today at about 12,300 miles per hour (19,800 km/h).

"The goal of InSight is nothing less than to better understand the birth of the Earth, the birth of the planet we live on, and we're going to do that by going to Mars", said Principle Investigator Bruce Banerdt.

But the USA has pulled off seven successful Mars landings in the past four decades. The entry, descent, and landing phases will each emit a slightly different radio frequency, enabling engineers to track InSight's progress.

"There is very little room for things to go wrong", said Mr Rob Grover, head of the entry, descent and landing team at the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (Nasa) Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

What will InSight do on Mars?

InSight is targeting a region known as Elysium Planitia, which is basically Latin for "heavenly plain". This spot is open, flat safe and boring, which is what the scientists want for a stationary two-year mission.

InSight will spend 24 months - about one Martian year - using seismic monitoring and underground temperature readings to unlock mysteries about how Mars formed and, by extension, the origins of the Earth and other rocky planets of the inner solar system. But InSight is expected to yield the first meaningful data on planetary seismic tremors beyond 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.

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