CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) – It all boils down to the last six minutes of a six month trip to Mars.
The NASA InSight spacecraft will enter the Martian atmosphere at supersonic speed, then press the brakes to achieve a smooth and safe landing in the red exotic plains.
After each micromanagement, the flight controllers will be helpless in the face of what will happen at the end of the road on Monday, at nearly 160 million kilometers. The communication time between Mars and Earth is eight minutes.
"By the time we heard something, everything was already done," said Tom Hoffman, project manager of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "Either that happened or it did not happen."
All small last-minute adjustments must be completed an hour and a half before touchdown, said Rob Grover, chief engineer of the landing team.
"All our efforts to make sure we succeed have all happened in previous years," he said.
A brief overview of Insight's entry, descent and landing:
InSight will arrive as an arrow at 12,300 mph (19,800 km / h), piercing the peak of the Martian atmosphere about 114 km above the surface. Engineers fire for an angle of attack of 12 degrees, almost parallel to the ground. Too stiff, the spaceship could burn. Too shallow, it could bounce in space. The atmospheric friction slows down the spacecraft, but accumulates heat. Its heat shield is designed to withstand 1500 degrees Celsius (2700 degrees Fahrenheit). Once InSight descended to 11 km, his parachute opened at a record speed of 1400 km / h.
Shortly after opening the white nylon chute, InSight drops off its heat shield and unfolds its three legs. After two minutes of descent under the parachute, the spacecraft, still supersonic, begins to use radar to determine speed and altitude, from about 2.5 km. It remains less than a minute before touchdown. With a reduced speed to 215 km / h, the lander drops his back hull and his parachute. It is less than one kilometer from the ground.
FORTY FIVE SECOND
Almost immediately, the 12 InSight descent engines begin to fire to further slow down the undercarriage and keep it away from the still fallen rear hull, still falling under the parachute. The undercarriage turns so that its solar panels extend east and west to touch and that its robotic arm is oriented towards the south. The speed of InSight is now 27 mph (17 mph) at an altitude of 50 meters (164 feet)
Now in so-called constant speed mode, InSight is targeting a ground hit at 8 km / h in a plain called Elysium Planitia near the equator. There, he will dig deep for heat measurements and measure the marsquakes over a full Martian year or two terrestrial years. NASA chose this place because it should be relatively flat and free of large rocks that could interfere with scientific operations. Parking near the equator provides optimal sunlight for solar energy. "It's a very safe place to land," Grover told a news conference on Wednesday.
It will be around 2 pm, March time, when InSight will land. It's 15 hours. on the east coast of the United States and at noon for the JPL flight controllers from Pasadena, California. NASA estimates that temperatures could be of the order of adolescence or even a few digit number (well below zero degrees Celsius). The overnight minimums could reach minus 140 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 96 degrees Celsius). It's winter on Mars. "Probably not need an umbrella, but you might need a coat and definitely recommend a space suit too, if you're at the landing site," joked Grover to reporters while describing the very dry Martian plain.
Since the departure of the Earth in May, InSight has been followed by WALL-E and EVE, the first CubeSats to venture into distant places. The suitcase-sized satellites, named after the characters from the 2008 animated film, will pass a few thousand kilometers from Mars, just as InSight lands. NASA hopes that one or both relays will relay InSight radio signals. If the experiment succeeds, flight controllers may be able to follow InSight's descent and landing, with a delay of more than eight minutes at best. Otherwise, news from NASA's orbiters will arrive on the surface of NASA.
The first job of InSight, a few minutes after landing, is to take a picture. The ground controllers want to see what they are facing. Large rocks or a hill could interfere with the geological experiments of the immobile lander. Once the red dust settles about 16 minutes after touchdown, the LG will deploy its solar panels and set up for its first long winter nap on Mars.