New lander will add to humans' long fascination with Mars

Mars probe faces daunting challenge to land safely

The landing will kick off a two-year mission in which InSight will become the first spacecraft to study Mars' deep interior.

"There's a reason engineers call landing on Mars 'seven minutes of terror, '" said Rob Grover, InSight's entry, descent and landing (EDL) lead, based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

After six months of a deep space voyage, NASA's new Mars lander InSight is ready to descend and explore the red planet. In about six-and-a-half minutes it will have to slow down to about 5 miles per hour using descent thrusters and a parachute.

The stationary probe, launched from California in May, will then pause for 16 minutes for the dust to settle, literally, around the landing site before its disc-shaped solar arrays unfurl to provide power. Engineers at mission control will continue monitoring the spacecraft and the red planet this weekend to make sure that everything is in order before landing in the Elysium Planitia region of Mars. Once there, the lander will drill down about 16 feet into the planet's crust to deploy thermometers and a seismometer into the Martian soil.

But overall, only about 40 per cent of all missions by the U.S., Russians and others have succeeded.

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"We can't joystick the landing, so we have to rely on the commands we pre-programme into the spacecraft".

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 eons, creating a geologic time machine for scientists.

NASA's 2012 probe, Curiosity, was tasked with a scouting mission while InSight's focus will be to learn what goes on under Mars' surface taking the planet's temperature, and measuring marsquakes. The probe is equipped with a mechanical mole to tunnel underground to measure internal heat.

Mars has a nasty habit of living up to its mythological name and besting Earth when it comes to accepting visitors.

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