Mars InSight: NASA's New Mission to the Red Planet About to Attempt Daring Touchdown (VIDEOS AND PICTURES)

Society | November 26, 2018, Monday // 10:21|  views

Six years after NASA's Curiosity rover landed on Mars in what has gone down in history as the seven minutes of terror, scientists are about to attempt to land a new spacecraft on the Red Planet, ABC News Reported. 

The Mars InSight lander, which blasted off in May, is due to touchdown tomorrow morning (November 27) just before 7:00am AEDT.

Its landing won't be quite as nail-biting as Curiosity's, but it is still risky, said the mission's deputy lead, Sue Smrekar, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

In 2016, the European Schiaparelli lander, the only spacecraft to attempt to land on the planet since Curiosity, crashed and burned.

If the Mars InSight landing succeeds, it will be the first spacecraft to study the Red Planet's inner secrets.

"We've had many missions that have looked at the surface of Mars, but we're the first one that is really going to tell us about the interior of Mars," she said.

The craft: A dinner table with a steampunk claw

The InSight lander — short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport — is very different to the Mars rovers.

"We do not have wheels — we actually need to stay in one place and be as quiet as possible," Dr Smrekar said.

About the size of a dinner table with two solar panels attached, the InSight lander is designed to take Mars's pulse and temperature.

The craft is kitted out with a 1.8-metre robotic arm or "steampunk claw" that can delicately place two experiments — a 20-centimetre, dome-shaped seismometer, and a heat probe — into position.

"This is super-important stuff for us," Dr Smrekar said.

Viking 2, a previous mission to Mars did have a seismometer, but it stayed on the deck of the spacecraft.

"Basically it detected gusts of wind that made the lander shake, but you can't really detect seismic waves using that configuration [on the spacecraft]," Dr Smrekar said.

"So, for the first time we've got a seismometer and actually placed it on the ground."

The mission: Marsquakes and rocky cores

The seismometer will measure Marsquakes — subtle vibrations caused by internal rumblings, meteorites smashing into the planet or dust storms whipping across the surface, explains Katarina Miljkovic, an Australian-based scientist on the project.

"The seismometer will sit there and listen to any shakes and quakes that are coming off the interior," said Dr Miljovovic, from Curtin University.

Observing the seismic waves bouncing around Mars will give the scientists an idea of what the internal structure of the planet looks like. This, in turn, can help us understand how rocky planets formed.

The heat probe, which can burrow 5m into the ground, could also give us more clues about the potential habitability of Mars, Dr Smrekar said.

"Understanding where water can be found is certainly a function of the temperature underground, so that will certainly help us in constraining what environments might be useful for finding either ice or possibly even liquid water," she said.

The craft will also have a radio antenna that can measure the planet's wobble.

The destination: The most boring place on Mars…

The InSight lander is heading for the Elysium Planitia, just 600km away from Curiosity.

But don't be fooled by the exotic name. This place is "the flattest, safest, most boring landing site ever on Mars," Dr Smrekar said.

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Tags: Insight, planet, space, red planer, NASA, Mars, Earth


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