Anxiety, excitement abounds at NASA as Mars landing day is here

Anxiety, excitement abounds at NASA as Mars landing day is here

Anxiety, excitement abounds at NASA as Mars landing day is here

The NASA InSight spacecraft will try to land on Mars. It's hoped that a supersonic parachute, 12 descent engines, and some shock-absorbing legs will slow it down enough for a safe landing.

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).

"Landing on Mars is exciting, but scientists are looking forward to the time after InSight lands", said Lori Glaze, acting director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters.

The first image from the surface of Mars is expected at 2004 GMT. NASA is quick to note the paltry success rate-only 40 percent-for Mars missions; the so far the only nation that has successfully landed on Mars.

NASA last lost a craft during entry in December 2009 when the 600-pound Mars Polar Lander careened into the surface at about 50 miles per hour, also due to a software error, because the lander's descent engines shut down too soon.

InSight has been traveling through deep space for more than six months. Image snapped by InSight's Instrument Context Camera (ICC), located on the lander's belly. "It takes skill, focus and years of preparation", said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters. No lander has dug deeper than several inches, and no seismometer has ever worked on Mars.

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After a seven-month journey, the lander will scream through the red planet's thin atmosphere at more than 12,000 miles per hour in a live-or-die bid to settle (in one piece) onto a flat area near the equator. You can watch a live feed of the control room above, beginning at 2:00 p.m. EST, with commentary including interviews with NASA engineers and scientists.

As a back-up system, InSight will send one of two tones via a UHF signal to Earth, immediately after touching down. They will also provide additional landing data and telemetry for engineers to analyze after the fact, aimed at improving future missions' shots at successfully touching down on Mars.

The JPL controllers also expect to receive a photograph of the probe's new surroundings on the flat, smooth Martian plain close to the planet's equator called the Elysium Planitia.

- The first "beep" from the spacecraft's X-band radio - indicating whether InSight survived the landing - is scheduled for 2001 GMT. InSight's actual landing on Mars is hard, and it's critical that it is completed perfectly. The thee-legged, one-armed InSight will operate from the same spot for the next two years. Orbiting satellites have also revealed important puzzle pieces about Mars' climate makeup and orbit, and have even detected what are thought to be flows of salty liquid water. So, once the InSight team is ready, they will set the Heat Probe down on the ground, likely after the seismic instrument is in position.

We're expecting InSight, a spacecraft created to collect information on the makeup of Mars, to land at about 3pm US ET (8pm GMT). Together, those instruments will take measurements of Mars' vital signs, like its pulse, temperature and reflexes - which translates to internal activity like seismology and the planet's wobble as the sun and its moons tug on Mars. 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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