'Six and a half minutes of terror' before Mars landing

NASA’s In Sight Lander Will Touch Down on Mars Today	 	 	 			NASA's In Sight spacecraft to attempt to land on Mars on November 26

NASA’s In Sight Lander Will Touch Down on Mars Today NASA's In Sight spacecraft to attempt to land on Mars on November 26

The first spacecraft to land on Mars in six years touches down on Monday equipped with British instruments to peer inside the planet and determine if it could once have sustained life.

The InSight mission is set to land on Mars at roughly 3 p.m. ET on Monday (that's noon PT).

If you aren't nervous for NASA's InSight Mars probe, you probably should be.

"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.

In October 2016, the European Space Agency lost its ExoMars Schiaparelli craft during an attempted Mars landing.

While Earth's tectonics and other forces have erased most evidence of its early history, much of Mars - about one-third the size of Earth - is believed to have remained largely static over the aeons, creating a geologic time machine for scientists. "We have 12 small descent engines grouped around the bottom of the lander that are providing the thrust to slow us down the final kilometer".

The JPL controllers also expect to receive a photo of the probe's surroundings on the flat, smooth Martian plain close to the planet's equator called the Elysium Planitia. First, the portion of the craft's capsule known as the "cruise stage" will separate and reposition so that the heat shield protecting the lander will face Mars' atmosphere.

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Should the diminutive spacecraft prove themselves viable, NASA boffins have said the tech could have applications elsewhere in the solar system and at the very least allow for a "bring your own relay" communications option during the critical touchdown phases.

In recent days, NASA has been commanding the spacecraft to make minor course corrections to ensure InSight enters the Martian atmosphere at the proper angle to within about a quarter of a degree. This intense heat could cause temporary dropouts in radio signals.

But then, the spacecraft's thrusters begin to fire, further slowing down the 800-pound (365 kilogram) spacecraft to a speed of just about 5 miles per hour (8 kph) when it reaches the surface.

After landing, InSight will send a tone beacon indicating its status. Because the entire landing sequence only takes six and a half minutes, the lander would already be on the ground by the time a signal from Earth arrived.

The lander will still be traveling at Mach 1.66 when a 39 foot wide parachute deploys, slowing the spacecraft to about 135 miles per hour. Radio telescopes in Green Bank, West Virginia and Effelsberg, Germany will be listening. MRO's data will be transmitted to earth by around 18:00 EST, three hours after landing.

That heat shield is thicker than on previous missions to protect the mission from heavy dust in the atmosphere/ InSight's engineers built the lander with dust storms in mind.

While The Weather Network is on-site, at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory during this event (and you can follow Scott at @ScottWx_TWN on Twitter for his live commentary), you don't need to be on hand, yourself, to experience the anticipation.

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