Look alive, people, because a spacecraft is about to attempt to land on Mars for the first time in six years on an amazing mission to peer inside the planet.
NASA’s InSight lander, which launched on May 5 this year, is due to touch down on Mars on Monday, November 26. This is a stationary lander, not a rover, equipped with various instruments to monitor Mars. It will try to measure seismic waves traveling through the planet, measure the wobble of the planet, and even try to deduce the temperature of its core by hammering a sensor underground.
Before that happens, however, it will have to endure “seven minutes of terror” during an intense landing process, from the moment it hits the Martian atmosphere to landing on the surface. It will have to endure searing temperatures, huge forces, and top it off with a rocket-powered landing, all without human intervention.
When the spacecraft enters the atmosphere at a speed of 21,000 kilometers (13,200 miles) per hour, it will be subject to temperatures of 1,500°C (2,700°F). After three and a half minutes it will deploy a parachute about 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) above the surface, slowing to 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) per hour.
After descending via parachute for about three minutes, its radar will sense when it is near the ground and extend its landing legs. At about 1.2 kilometers (0.75 miles) above the surface, it will use 12 rocket engines to slow its descent to 8.7 kilometers (5.4 miles) per hour for a soft landing.
The event will be all the more nerve-wracking back home, because InSight will be doing this autonomously. Due to the large distance between Mars and Earth, there’s no possibility to do this manually in real-time, so all the maneuvers are pre-programmed into the spacecraft.
“By the time we’re understanding what’s happening with the landing, there’s a large enough delay that we can’t actually control the vehicle from Earth,” NASA’s Rob Grover, the systems lead on the landing, told The Verge. “Everything has to be completely autonomous and automated.”
This will be the first landing on Mars since the Curiosity rover touched down on August 6, 2012. And while InSight won’t be driving across the surface like Curiosity, the landing is set to be just as nail-biting, as engineers hope it doesn’t befall the same fate as so many other Mars missions.
Thankfully, you’ll be able to watch all the action from mission control as InSight attempts to land on the surface via a live stream from NASA, which we’ll also embed on here. If all goes to plan, the mission will run until at least November 2020, and who knows what it’ll discover in that time.