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

Marine biologist Rick Harbo pulls a lid from the Ladysmith harbour, which he uses to monitor the presence of native and non-native species in the Ladysmith harbour. (Cole Schisler photo)
Unidentified sponge may be the latest marine species invading Ladysmith Harbour

Marine biologist finding dozens of alien species in warm-water harbour, none of them threatening

More and more graffiti has appeared in Ladysmith’s downtown core during the pandemic. (Cole Schisler photo)
Council creates rebate program to encourage graffiti clean up

Property owners can receive up to $50 to help fund graffiti removal

Rick Ruppenthal of Saltair will host a 12-hour talk-a-thon Friday, June 18 over Facebook live. (Photo submitted)
Talk-a-thon to focus on men’s mental health issues

Saltair man spearheading a campaign to generate more conversation during fundraiser

(File photo)
Poverty reduction survey identifies 10 poverty themes

Poverty reduction plan will be finalized in July 2021

Maxwell Johnson is seen in Bella Bella, B.C., in an undated photo. The Indigenous man from British Columbia has filed complaints with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal and the Canadian Human Rights Commission after he and his granddaughter were handcuffed when they tried to open a bank account. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Heiltsuk Nation, Damien Gillis, *MANDATORY CREDIT*
VIDEO: Chiefs join human rights case of Indigenous man handcuffed by police in B.C. bank

Maxwell Johnson said he wants change, not just words, from Vancouver police

For more than a year, Rene Doyharcabal and a small group of neighbours in Langley’s Brookswood neighbourhood have been going out every evening to show support for first responders by honking horns and banging pots and drums. Now, a neighbour has filed a noise complaint. (Langley Advance Times file)
Noise complaint filed against nightly show of support for health care workers in B.C. city

Langley Township contacted group to advise of complaint, but no immediate action is expected

A nurse prepares a shot of the COVID-19 vaccine at the Yukon Convention Centre in Whitehorse on Wednesday, March 3, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mike Thomas
Vancouver couple pleads guilty to breaking Yukon COVID rules, travelling for vaccine

Chief Judge Michael Cozens agreed with a joint sentencing submission,

An inmate in solitary confinement given lunch on Tuesday, May 10, 2016. THE CANADIAN/Lars Hagberg
22-hour cap on solitary confinement for youth in custody still too long: B.C. lawyer

Jennifer Metcalfe was horrified to hear a youth had spent a total of 78 straight days in isolation

Flowers and candles were laid on the driveway of the Weber home, where Kerri Weber was found dead in November 2020. (Black Press Media file photo)
Greater Victoria man to stand trial for death of his wife last November

Ken Weber is charged with second-degree murder of his wife, Kerri Weber

The discovery of a missing woman’s body in Nanaimo earlier this month is now being treated as homicide, say Nanaimo RCMP. (File photo)
Discovery of woman’s body in downtown Nanaimo now being investigated as a homicide

Amy Watts was found dead near Albert Street and Victoria Crescent on June 3

People line up to get their COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination centre, Thursday, June 10, 2021 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Vaccines, low COVID case counts increase Father’s Day hope, but risk is still there

Expert says people will have to do their own risk calculus before popping in on Papa

B.C. Premier John Horgan listens as Finance Minister Selina Robinson presents the province’s latest budget, April 20, 2021. The budget projects $19 billion in deficits over three years. (Hansard TV)
B.C. government budget balloons, beyond COVID-19 response

Provincial payroll up 104,000 positions, $10 billion since 2017

COVID-related trash is washing up on shorelines across the world, including Coldstream’s Kal Beach, as pictured in this May 2021 photograph. (Jennifer Smith - Black Press)
Shoreline cleanup finds COVID-related trash increased during height of the pandemic

Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup reports litter from single-use food packaging nearly doubled

Most Read