InSight set to touch down for mission on Mars
On Monday, November 26, NASA’s InSight spacecraft — carrying a seismometer developed by scientists from ETH Zurich and a Swiss flag — is scheduled to reach Martian soil. But the landing is described by NASA engineers as “seven minutes of terror.”
After the six-month journey to Mars, the final descent to reach the red planet is both critical and difficult. "Landing on Mars is hard. It takes skill, focus and years of preparation," said Thomas Zurbuchen, a Swiss-American astrophysicist and associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA.
InSight will reach Mars’ atmosphere at an incredible speed of 12,300 mph (19,800 km/h) and must drastically slow down to 5 mph (8 km/h) in just seven minutes before touchdown.
NASA InSight engineer Rob Grover explains: “there's a reason engineers call landing on Mars ‘seven minutes of terror’… We can't joystick the landing, so we have to rely on the commands we pre-program into the spacecraft.”
As it takes more than seven minutes for data to be sent 100 million miles back to Earth at the speed of light, scientists will have to wait a few excruciating minutes to find out if the landing was successful. With more than half of all Mars landings ending in failure, this will be a critical moment for the first mission to Mars in six years.
Journey to the deep interior
If touchdown is successful, InSight will deploy its instruments, including the Swiss-engineered seismometer, to study the deep interior of Mars.
The aim is to help scientists understand how Earth-like planets formed and changed over time. While previous missions to the Red Planet investigated its surface and atmosphere, InSight is the first to go underground.
"We've studied Mars from orbit and from the surface since 1965, learning about its weather, atmosphere, geology and surface chemistry," said Lori Glaze, acting director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA's Science Mission Directorate. "Now we’ll finally explore inside Mars and deepen our understanding of our terrestrial neighbor as NASA prepares to send human explorers deeper into the solar system."
InSight into the past
A planet’s interior holds the history of its formation and effects what happens on the surface: it influences a planet’s atmosphere, landscape elevation, and water and ice–all the conditions that support life. 4.5 billion years ago, Mars and Earth formed from the same material, but they evolved very differently. By studying Mars’ interior, scientists will be able to go back in time to find out why Earth evolved to support life and not Mars.
“In some ways, InSight is like a scientific time machine that will bring back information about the earliest stages of Mars’ formation...” said InSight’s Principal Investigator Bruce Banerdt, at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory who has been working on this mission for 25 years. “It will help us learn how rocky bodies form, including Earth and the moon, and even planets in other solar systems.”
If all goes to plan, at approximately 11:47am (PST) on Monday, November 26, InSight will start its descent into the Martian atmosphere with the first images of the spacecraft on the surface of Mars expected back on Earth by 12:04pm. Audiences around the world can watch NASA TV’s live coverage of the InSight Mars landing at https://www.nasa.gov/nasalive
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Perrine Huber is Head of Communication at swissnex San Francisco.