InSight set to land on Mars Mon­day

Tried-and-true method slated to get me­chan­i­cal miner to Mars

Orlando Sentinel (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - By Mar­cia Dunn

NASA’s three-legged, one-armed ge­ol­o­gist will dig deep in the planet’s sur­face and lis­ten for quakes.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Mars is about to get its first U.S. vis­i­tor in years: a three-legged, one-armed ge­ol­o­gist to dig deep and lis­ten for quakes.

NASA’s InSight makes its grand en­trance through the rose-tinted Mar­tian skies on Mon­day, af­ter a six­month, 300-mil­lion-mile jour­ney. It will be the first Amer­i­can space­craft to land since the Cu­rios­ity rover in 2012 and the first ded­i­cated to ex­plor­ing un­der­ground.

NASA is go­ing with a tried-and-true method to get this me­chan­i­cal miner to the sur­face of the red planet. En­gine fir­ings will slow its fi­nal de­scent, and the space­craft will plop down on its rigid legs, mim­ick­ing the land­ings of ear­lier suc­cess­ful mis­sions.

That’s where old school ends on this $1 bil­lion U.S.-Euro­pean ef­fort.

Once flight con­trollers in Cal­i­for­nia de­ter­mine the coast is clear at the land­ing site — fairly flat and rock­free — InSight’s 6-foot arm will re­move the two main sci­ence ex­per­i­ments from the lan­der’s deck and place them di­rectly on the Mar­tian sur­face.

No space­craft has at­tempted any­thing like that be­fore.

The firsts don’t stop there.

One ex­per­i­ment will at­tempt to pen­e­trate 16 feet into Mars, us­ing a self­ham­mer­ing nail with heat sen­sors to gauge the planet’s in­ter­nal tem­per­a­ture. That would shat­ter the outof-this-world depth record of 8 feet drilled by the Apollo moon­walk­ers nearly a half-cen­tury ago for lu­nar heat mea­sure­ments.

The as­tro­nauts also left be­hind instruments to mea­sure moon­quakes. InSight car­ries the first seis­mome­ters to mon­i­tor for marsquakes — if they ex­ist. Yet an­other ex­per­i­ment will cal­cu­late Mars’ wob­ble, pro­vid­ing clues about the planet’s core.

It won’t be look­ing for signs of life, past or present. No life de­tec­tors are on board.

The space­craft is like a self-suf­fi­cient ro­bot, said lead sci­en­tist Bruce Ban­erdt of NASA’s Jet Propul­sion Lab­o­ra­tory.

“It’s got its own brain. It’s got an arm that can ma­nip­u­late things around. It can lis­ten with its seis­mome­ter. It can feel things with the pres­sure sen­sors and the tem­per­a­ture sen­sors. It pulls its own power out of the sun,” he said.

By scop­ing out the in­sides of Mars, sci­en­tists could learn how our neigh­bor — and other rocky worlds, in­clud­ing the Earth and moon — formed and trans­formed over bil­lions of years. Mars is much less ge­o­log­i­cally ac­tive than Earth, and so its in­te­rior is closer to be­ing in its orig­i­nal state — a tan­ta­liz­ing time cap­sule.

InSight stands to “rev­o­lu­tion­ize the way we think about the in­side of the planet,” said NASA’s sci­ence mis­sion chief, Thomas Zur­buchen.

But first, the 800-pound ve­hi­cle needs to get safely to the Mar­tian sur­face.

This time, there won’t be a ball bounc­ing down with the space­craft tucked in­side like there were for the Spirit and Op­por­tu­nity rovers in 2004. And there won’t be a sky crane to lower the lan­der like there was for the six-wheeled Cu­rios­ity dur­ing its dra­matic “seven min­utes of ter­ror.”

“That was crazy,” ac­knowl­edged InSight’s pro­ject man­ager, Tom Hoff­man. But he noted, “Any time you’re try­ing to land on Mars, it’s crazy, frankly. I don’t think there’s a sane way to do it.”

No mat­ter how it’s done, get­ting to Mars and land­ing there is hard — and un­for­giv­ing.

Earth’s suc­cess rate at Mars is a mere 40 per­cent. That in­cludes plan­e­tary fly­bys dat­ing back to the early 1960s, as well as or­biters and lan­ders.

While it’s had its share of flops, the U.S. has by far the best track record. No one else has man­aged to land and op­er­ate a space­craft on Mars. Two years ago, a Euro­pean lan­der came in so fast, its de­scent sys­tem askew, that it carved out a crater on im­pact.

This time, NASA is bor­row­ing a page from the 1976 twin Vik­ings and the 2008 Phoenix, which also were sta­tion­ary and three-legged.

“But you never know what Mars is go­ing to do,” Hoff­man said. “Just be­cause we’ve done it be­fore doesn’t mean we’re not ner­vous and ex­cited about do­ing it again.”

Wind gusts could send the space­craft into a dan­ger­ous tumble dur­ing de­scent, or the para­chute could get tan­gled. A dust storm like the one that en­veloped Mars this past sum­mer could ham­per InSight’s abil­ity to gen­er­ate so­lar power. A leg could buckle. The arm could jam.

The tens­est time for flight con­trollers in Pasadena, Calif.: the six min­utes from the time the space­craft hits Mars’ at­mos­phere and touch­down. They’ll have jars of peanuts on hand — a good-luck tra­di­tion dat­ing back to 1964’s suc­cess­ful Ranger 7 moon mis­sion.

InSight will en­ter Mars’ at­mos­phere at a su­per­sonic 12,300 mph, re­ly­ing on its white ny­lon para­chute and a se­ries of en­gine fir­ings to slow down enough for a soft up­right land­ing on Mars’ Ely­sium Plani­tia, a siz­able equa­to­rial plain.

Hoff­man hopes it’s “like a Wal­mart park­ing lot in Kansas.”

The flat­ter the bet­ter so the lan­der doesn’t tip over, end­ing the mis­sion, and so the ro­botic arm can set the sci­ence instruments down.

InSight — short for In­te­rior Ex­plo­ration us­ing Seis­mic In­ves­ti­ga­tions, Geodesy and Heat Trans­port — will rest close to the ground, its top deck barely a yard above the sur­face.

Once its twin cir­cu­lar so­lar pan­els open, the lan­der will oc­cupy the space of a large car.

If NASA gets lucky, a pair of brief­case-size satel­lites trail­ing InSight since their joint May liftoff could pro­vide near-live up­dates dur­ing the lan­der’s de­scent. There’s an eight-minute lag in com­mu­ni­ca­tions be­tween Earth and Mars.

The ex­per­i­men­tal CubeSats, dubbed WALL-E and EVE from the 2008 an­i­mated movie, will zoom past Mars and re­main in per­pet­ual or­bit around the sun, their tech­nol­ogy demon­stra­tion com­plete.

If WALL-E and EVE are mute, land­ing news will come from NASA or­biters at Mars, just not as quickly.

The first pic­tures of the land­ing site should start flow­ing shortly af­ter touch­down. It will be at least 10 weeks be­fore the sci­ence instruments are de­ployed. Add an­other sev­eral weeks for the heat probe to bury into Mars.

The mis­sion will last one full Mar­tian year, the equiv­a­lent of two Earth years.

NASA/JPL-CAL­TECH

NASA il­lus­tra­tion shows a sim­u­lated view of InSight lan­der fir­ing retro­rock­ets to slow down as it de­scends to­ward the sur­face of Mars.

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