The first robotic lander by NASA designed to study the deep interior of a distant world hurtled closer to Mars is on course for a planned touchdown on Monday after a six-month voyage through space.
Traveling 301 million miles from Earth, the Mars InSight spacecraft was due to reach its destination on the dusty, rock-strewn surface of the Red Planet at about 3 p.m. EST (20:00 GMT).
The high-risk descent is expected to last 7 minutes, and NASA engineers, nicknamed it ‘‘the 7 minutes of terror’‘.
“I am completely excited and completely nervous all at the same time because everything that we’ve done to date makes us feel comfortable and confident we’re going to land on Mars but everything has to go perfectly and Mars could always throw us a curve ball — to use the baseball analogy— that may decrease our batting average. But I think we’ve been practicing very well. I’m confident but very trepidations I have not been sleeping that great. It might be because I have 2 and 4 year old kids running around the house all the time but, nonetheless, I’m going to be very excited once we get that shows first signal that shows that we’ve successfully landed on Mars. I am totally going to unleash my inner 4-year-old at that point”, said Tom Hoffman, Insight project manager.
If all goes as planned, InSight will streak into the pink Martian sky nearly 24 hours later at 12,000 miles per hour. Its 77-mile descent to the surface will be slowed by atmospheric friction, a giant parachute and retro rockets. When it lands 6-1/2 minutes later, it will be traveling a mere 5 mph (8 kph).
Once on Mars, a huge task awaits Insight. The purpose of the operation is to collect data that will be used to better understand the Red Planet. That’s why the probe is equipped with a seismometer to listen to its vibrations.
‘‘When we look at the crust of Mars, that’s a snapshot into the past of what the crust of the Earth might have looked like 4 and a half billion years ago before it got all busy”, said Insight principal investigator, Bruce Banerdt.
This is the first time since 2012 that a spacecraft has attempted to land on Mars. Only the United States has managed to install robots there.
NASA says, The InSight and next rover mission, are seen as precursors for eventual human exploration of Mars.