Countdown to Mars: NASA sweating 'seven minutes of terror'

At 3 p.m. ET on Monday, November 26, a group of researchers will be really sweating. The NASA InSigh...

Posted: Nov 26, 2018 6:37 AM

At 3 p.m. ET on Monday, November 26, a group of researchers will be really sweating. The NASA InSight spacecraft will try to land on Mars.

After six months of flight, the lander component of the probe will detach itself from the cruise stage and head into the atmosphere. The lander component initially looks a fair bit like the re-entry capsule used in the 1960s and 1970s for the Apollo moon missions -- sort of conical, with a smooth and flat bottom. That bottom is a crucial heat shield that is designed to protect the probe as it passes through the thin Martian atmosphere.

The landing is a devilishly difficult feat. The landing capsule has to batter its way through the atmosphere. It will fly through the Martian air at an initial speed of 12,300 mph, and it must hit the atmosphere at an angle of precisely 12 degrees. Any shallower, and the probe will bounce off into deep space. Any steeper, and the probe will burn itself up in a spectacular and fiery death. The probe will first touch the atmosphere six minutes and 45 seconds before landing. During this phase, it will experience acceleration 12 times that of the Earth's gravity. Were the probe a 150-pound human, during the flaming descent, it would weigh nearly a ton.

About 3½ minutes after the probe hits the atmosphere, a parachute will deploy, slowing down the probe even more. Fifteen seconds later, explosives will blow the heat shield off, exposing the actual InSight probe hidden inside. Ten seconds after the heat shield falls away, the probe will extend its legs, much like an airplane extends its wheels before touching down.

The probe will fall for an additional two minutes attached to the parachute and protected by its conical shell. About 45 seconds before InSight lands, it will drop out of the shell and fall toward the surface. As soon as it leaves the shell, its landing rockets will ignite.

The actual InSight probe looks a little bit like the Apollo moon lander, with three legs to support it and a boxy top. The rockets will slow it further and stop any remaining horizontal motion. Then, about 15 seconds before touchdown, the InSight probe will descend at a speed of 8 feet per second, before hopefully touching down gently on the Martian surface.

The entire landing sequence will take about seven minutes to occur. A radio signal from Mars to Earth currently takes about eight minutes and seven seconds to get here. So the complete landing process will take place before we find out if it was successful. It will be done automatically, entirely by the probe itself. For the scientists and engineers who designed InSight, this is called "seven minutes of terror."

And they are right to be worried. Mars is a graveyard of failed probes. There have been 44 attempts by various national space agencies to land on Mars. Eighteen have been successful. Twenty-three have not. Three have achieved orbit but failed at a landing.

So, what does InSight hope to achieve? Well, as it happens, a lot. But it's different than the intrepid Curiosity probe, which NASA landed in 2012. InSight will not move around. Instead, it will stay put and tell us of the interior of Mars.

One thing it will do is emit radio waves that we can monitor on Earth. By making careful measurements of how the frequency of the radio waves change, we will be able to measure the degree to which Mars wobbles as it rotates. That will tell us something about the core of the planet, specifically its makeup and information on the degree to which it is molten.

InSight will also deploy a seismometer to listen for marsquakes (like earthquakes, but Martian-style) and for impacts of meteors on the planet. Information gleaned from the waves the seismometer detects will tell us more about the planet's interior.

The third thing InSight will do is to dig below the planet's surface. Using a jackhammer, the probe will drill down 5 meters (16 feet) into the planet and, basically, it will take the planet's temperature.

There are many reasons this is interesting. Taking the temperature at that depth will allow planetary scientists to determine how much heat is escaping from Mars. More broadly, this measurement will allow a clear determination of the temperature of the planet much closer to the core.

This information will tell us a lot about how Mars formed, which, in turn, will add to the information of how rocky planets, including our own Earth, typically develop.

And if you're more of an explorer kind of person and not so interested in Martian geology, it will also tell us how warm the planet is at modest depths, which will tell us if there is any chance of liquid water on the planet. Perhaps obviously, if the Martian subsurface is warm enough, any buried water will be in liquid form and not ice. Finding liquid water would be the key discovery that would make Martian exploration relatively easy. A relatively recent possible discovery of a buried Martian lake was promising, but the data was not conclusive. Knowing that the ground is warm would be very comforting to possible future explorers.

Exploring the solar system is the first step toward exploring the stars. The InSight probe will give us --well -- insight into whether this is something that humanity will achieve in the foreseeable future.

And maybe Elon Musk's bet on him getting to Mars will become true.

Terre Haute
Clear
74° wxIcon
Hi: 87° Lo: 68°
Feels Like: 74°
Robinson
Scattered Clouds
72° wxIcon
Hi: 84° Lo: 67°
Feels Like: 72°
Indianapolis
Broken Clouds
75° wxIcon
Hi: 86° Lo: 67°
Feels Like: 75°
Rockville
Clear
77° wxIcon
Hi: 85° Lo: 65°
Feels Like: 79°
Casey
Clear
74° wxIcon
Hi: 83° Lo: 68°
Feels Like: 74°
Brazil
Clear
74° wxIcon
Hi: 86° Lo: 67°
Feels Like: 74°
Marshall
Clear
74° wxIcon
Hi: 85° Lo: 67°
Feels Like: 74°
Partly cloudy, calm, and quiet.
WTHI Planner
WTHI Temps
WTHI Radar

Latest Video

Image

Police surround N 5th St Home

Image

Teachers are gearing up for a socially distanced classroom

Image

Thursday: Mix of clouds and sunshine. Average temperatures. High: 86

Image

Tia Tolbert

Image

Sullivan football

Image

New restaurant set to open in southern Vigo County

Image

Oblong pays off late water bills with COVID-19 relief funding

Image

Southwest Sullivan Parent

Image

Local artist creates a piece for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Image

Wednesday Early Forecast

WTHI Events

 

Illinois Coronavirus Cases

(Widget updates once daily at 7 p.m. CT)

Confirmed Cases: 199893

Reported Deaths: 7881
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Cook1130444934
Lake12939449
DuPage12511522
Kane9948305
Will9486346
St. Clair4155162
Winnebago3806131
McHenry3279114
Madison277778
Kankakee180769
Rock Island178438
Peoria171736
Champaign170919
Kendall141223
Unassigned1395209
Sangamon132333
DeKalb95631
LaSalle82525
Boone77023
Jackson74020
McLean68615
Macon67823
Tazewell5818
Adams5806
Coles52021
Randolph4867
Williamson4547
Ogle4205
Clinton41917
Whiteside36717
Grundy3435
Stephenson3356
Monroe33213
Union33023
Knox3241
Jefferson30420
Morgan2866
Iroquois26912
Henry2621
Vermilion2492
Bureau2413
Cass23811
Macoupin2003
Franklin1981
Warren1940
Lee1861
Perry1853
Effingham1831
Montgomery1747
Woodford1703
Marion1690
Logan1661
McDonough14715
Christian1444
Saline1342
Jo Daviess1331
Livingston1303
Douglas1293
Jersey1222
Pulaski971
Moultrie930
Shelby901
Clark872
Mercer774
White720
Fayette713
Johnson700
Hancock681
Washington670
Greene660
Wayne662
Bond643
Carroll644
Piatt640
Jasper597
Menard580
Cumberland573
Mason570
Gallatin512
Lawrence510
Ford502
Massac420
Wabash420
Alexander370
Fulton370
De Witt340
Hamilton300
Crawford290
Edgar290
Marshall280
Clay270
Scott270
Pike260
Edwards240
Richland220
Schuyler190
Hardin180
Brown150
Henderson140
Putnam140
Calhoun110
Pope110
Stark70
Out of IL00

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

(Widget updates once daily at 8 p.m. ET)

Confirmed Cases: 76522

Reported Deaths: 3086
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Marion16194731
Lake7742281
Elkhart495586
Allen4040163
St. Joseph361083
Hamilton2887104
Vanderburgh205313
Hendricks1943108
Cass18069
Johnson1794119
Porter136239
Clark130750
Tippecanoe124511
Madison103066
LaPorte93530
Howard92065
Kosciusko87212
Floyd82249
Bartholomew82147
Marshall79423
Monroe76732
Delaware76052
Vigo71411
Dubois71312
Boone69746
Noble69029
Hancock68839
Jackson5975
Warrick58830
Shelby56828
LaGrange56610
Grant53130
Dearborn51628
Morgan48934
Clinton4504
Henry41820
Wayne38810
White37711
Montgomery36021
Lawrence35727
Harrison35224
Decatur34232
Putnam3218
Daviess27920
Miami2772
Scott27310
Jasper2572
Greene25434
Franklin24715
DeKalb2384
Gibson2334
Jennings22812
Steuben2153
Ripley2138
Carroll2003
Fayette1957
Perry18713
Posey1800
Starke1807
Orange17824
Wells1782
Fulton1732
Wabash1715
Jefferson1662
Knox1640
Whitley1566
Tipton14912
Washington1441
Sullivan1411
Spencer1393
Clay1315
Huntington1273
Randolph1274
Newton12110
Adams1172
Owen1051
Jay920
Rush894
Pulaski821
Fountain762
Brown752
Blackford662
Ohio656
Benton640
Pike620
Vermillion590
Parke551
Switzerland530
Martin500
Crawford450
Union410
Warren241
Unassigned0208