FILE - This image made available by NASA shows the planet Mars. This composite photo was created from over 100 images of Mars taken by Viking Orbiters in the 1970s. In our solar system family, Mars is Earth’s next-of-kin, the next-door relative that has captivated humans for millennia. The attraction is sure to grow on Monday, Nov. 26 with the arrival of a NASA lander named InSight. (NASA via AP, File)

FILE - This image made available by NASA shows the planet Mars. This composite photo was created from over 100 images of Mars taken by Viking Orbiters in the 1970s. In our solar system family, Mars is Earth’s next-of-kin, the next-door relative that has captivated humans for millennia. The attraction is sure to grow on Monday, Nov. 26 with the arrival of a NASA lander named InSight. (NASA via AP, File)

Anxiety abounds at NASA as Mars landing day arrives

“Landing on Mars is one of the hardest single jobs that people have to do in planetary exploration.”

A NASA spacecraft’s six-month journey to Mars neared its dramatic grand finale Monday in what scientists and engineers hoped would be a soft precision landing on flat red plains.

The InSight lander aimed for an afternoon touchdown, as anxiety built among those involved in the $1 billion international effort.

InSight’s perilous descent through the Martian atmosphere, after a trip of 300 million miles (482 million kilometres), had stomachs churning and nerves stretched to the max. Although an old pro at this, NASA last attempted a landing at Mars six years ago.

The robotic geologist — designed to explore Mars’ mysterious insides — must go from 12,300 mph (19,800 kph) to zero in six minutes flat as it pierces the Martian atmosphere, pops out a parachute, fires its descent engines and, hopefully, lands on three legs.

“Landing on Mars is one of the hardest single jobs that people have to do in planetary exploration,” noted InSight’s lead scientist, Bruce Banerdt. “It’s such a difficult thing, it’s such a dangerous thing that there’s always a fairly uncomfortably large chance that something could go wrong.”

Earth’s success rate at Mars is 40 per cent, counting every attempted flyby, orbital flight and landing by the U.S., Russia and other countries dating all the way back to 1960.

But the U.S. has pulled off seven successful Mars landings in the past four decades. With only one failed touchdown, it’s an enviable record. No other country has managed to set and operate a spacecraft on the dusty red surface.

InSight could hand NASA its eighth win.

It’s shooting for Elysium Planitia, a plain near the Martian equator that the InSight team hopes is as flat as a parking lot in Kansas with few, if any, rocks. This is no rock-collecting expedition. Instead, the stationary 800-pound (360-kilogram) lander will use its 6-foot (1.8-meter) robotic arm to place a mechanical mole and seismometer on the ground.

The self-hammering mole will burrow 16 feet (5 metres) down to measure the planet’s internal heat, while the ultra-high-tech seismometer listens for possible marsquakes. Nothing like this has been attempted before at our smaller next-door neighbour, nearly 100 million miles (160 million kilometres) away.

No experiments have ever been moved robotically from the spacecraft to the actual Martian surface. No lander has dug deeper than several inches, and no seismometer has ever worked on Mars.

By examining the deepest, darkest interior of Mars — still preserved from its earliest days — scientists hope to create 3D images that could reveal how our solar system’s rocky planets formed 4.5 billion years ago and why they turned out so different. One of the big questions is what made Earth so hospitable to life.

Mars once had flowing rivers and lakes; the deltas and lakebeds are now dry, and the planet cold. Venus is a furnace because of its thick, heat-trapping atmosphere. Mercury, closest to the sun, has a surface that’s positively baked.

The planetary know-how gained from InSight’s two-year operation could even spill over to rocky worlds beyond our solar system, according to Banerdt. The findings on Mars could help explain the type of conditions at these so-called exoplanets “and how they fit into the story that we’re trying to figure out for how planets form,” he said.

Concentrating on planetary building blocks, InSight has no life-detecting capability. That will be left for future rovers. NASA’s Mars 2020 mission, for instance, will collect rocks for eventual return that could hold evidence of ancient life.

Because it’s been so long since NASA’s last Martian landfall — the Curiosity rover in 2012 — Mars mania is gripping not only the space and science communities, but everyday folks.

Viewing parties are planned coast to coast at museums, planetariums and libraries, as well as in France, where InSight’s seismometer was designed and built. The giant NASDAQ screen in New York’s Times Square will start broadcasting NASA Television an hour before InSight’s scheduled 3 p.m. EST touchdown; so will the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. The InSight spacecraft was built near Denver by Lockheed Martin.

But the real action, at least on Earth, will unfold at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, home to InSight’s flight control team. NASA is providing a special 360-degree online broadcast from inside the control centre.

Confirmation of touchdown could take minutes — or hours. At the minimum, there’s an eight-minute communication lag between Mars and Earth.

A pair of briefcase-size satellites trailing InSight since liftoff in May will try to relay its radio signals to Earth, with a potential lag time of under nine minutes. These experimental CubeSats will fly right past the red planet without stopping. Signals also could travel straight from InSight to radio telescopes in West Virginia and Germany. It will take longer to hear from NASA’s Mars orbiters.

Project manager Tom Hoffman said Sunday he’s trying his best to stay outwardly calm as the hours tick down. Once InSight phones home from the Martian surface, though, he expects to behave much like his three young grandsons did at Thanksgiving dinner, running around like crazy and screaming.

“Just to warn anybody who’s sitting near me … I’m going to unleash my inner 4-year-old on you, so be careful,” he said.

The Associated Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

Soaker hoses laid down over corn seedlings, soon to be covered with mulch, will see to the watering needs of the bed through any summer drought. (Mary Lowther photo)
Mary Lowther column: Investing in soaker hoses is money well-spent

No-till gardening has a distinct advantage during drought

Karl McPherson, left, and Mary Morrice are the new head coach and general manager, respectively, at the Duncan Dynamics Gymnastics Club. (Kevin Rothbauer/Citizen)
Manager charts a new course for Duncan Dynamics

More recreational programs to join competitive teams

Cute but fierce! Timber moonlights as an attack kitty. (Sarah Simpson/Citizen)
Sarah Simpson Column: Beware of Mr. Bite, the midnight attacker

Last week, in the middle of the night, I was awoken by… Continue reading

The province has come through with funding for Duncan Manor’s renewal project. (File photo)
Funding comes through for Duncan Manor’s renewal project

Money will come from the province’s Community Housing Fund

At an outdoor drive-in convocation ceremony, Mount Royal University bestows an honorary Doctor of Laws on Blackfoot Elder and residential school survivor Clarence Wolfleg in Calgary on Tuesday, June 8, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
‘You didn’t get the best of me’: Residential school survivor gets honorary doctorate

Clarence Wolfleg receives honorary doctorate from Mount Royal University, the highest honour the school gives out

“They will never be forgotten, every child matters,” says Sioux Valley Chief Jennifer Bone in a video statement June 1. (Screen grab)
104 ‘potential graves’ detected at site of former residential school in Manitoba

Sioux Valley Dakota Nation working to identify, repatriate students buried near former Brandon residential school

The Queen Victoria statue at the B.C. legislature was splattered with what looks like red paint on Friday. (Nicole Crescenzi/News Staff)
Queen Victoria statue at B.C. legislature vandalized Friday

Statue splattered with red paint by old growth forest proponents

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Police cars are seen parked outside Vancouver Police Department headquarters on Saturday, January 9, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Vancouver police officer charged with assault during an arrest in 2019

The service has released no other details about the allegations

Denmark’s Christian Eriksen receives medical attention after collapsing during the Euro 2020 soccer championship group B match between Denmark and Finland at Parken stadium in Copenhagen, Saturday, June 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner, Pool)
Denmark soccer player Christian Eriksen collapses during game against Finland

Eriksen was given chest compressions after collapsing on the field during a European Championship

Members of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ Marine Mammal Response Program rescued an adult humpback what that was entangled in commercial fishing gear in the waters off of Entrance Island on Thursday, June 10. (Photo courtesy Marine Mammal Response Program)
Rescuers free humpback ‘anchored’ down by prawn traps off Vancouver Island

Department of Fisheries and Oceans responders spend hours untangling whale

As stories of the horrors of residential schools circulate after the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation announced it had located what are believed to be the remains of 215 children, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs said he feels a connection with the former students. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
2 sides of the same coin: Ex-foster kids identify with residential school survivors

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip says the child welfare system takes Indigenous children from their families

Most Read