At the beginning of next week, NASA will try the incredible achievement of landing a spacecraft on Mars, hoping to…
At the beginning of next week, NASA will try the incredible achievement of landing a spacecraft on Mars, hoping to add to the growing collection of technology on the red planet’s surface. This time, NASA hopes to place a robotic lander, called InSight, on a flat, dull part of Martens terrain to study the interior of the planet. And to do that, the car robber must perform a perfectly synchronized landing routine – one that slows the vehicle down from more than 12,000 miles per hour to zero in just six and a half minutes.
Launched May 5th from California, InSight has traveled through space in the last six months and is scheduled to enter Mars’s atmosphere on November 26th. During its descent to the surface, the farmer will be exposed to extremely high temperatures, speeds and forces. In order to survive, InSight will autonomously review dozens of programmed steps, for example, using a supersonic parachute and igniting built-in thrusters. Each of the steps must happen at the exact right time to help the farmer to move safely. “[We have] takes out all this energy we have when we arrive in Mars, so we have a smooth landing when we get to the surface.” Rob Grover, the systems leading to the landing of InSight on NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, tells The Verge .
Such a complex procedure is needed because landing on Mars is not a trivial task. The biggest obstacle that InSight engineers had to do with is the planet’s atmosphere. Although Mars’s atmosphere is quite thin – less than one hundredth of the earth’s atmosphere – it’s thick enough to get incoming vehicles to heat the ground down to the ground. That means that Martian spacecraft needs proper foreclosure if they hope to reach the surface without melting. But because the atmosphere is thinner than ours, it also means that parachutes on Mars are not as effective for lowering spacecraft as they are on Earth. Engineers had to add thrusters to ensure that the farmer would touch down carefully.
InSight is equipped for all this. However, it is possible that the farmer can encounter a particularly uninviting environment when it comes, as the vehicle will land in the middle of Mars’s storm storm season. So far, the weather seems calm, but it is possible that a storm may develop before InSights landing. If so, the mission team would have to do some last minute rework of the airplane, but they are convinced that InSight can handle it. “We have designed the system to handle this environment,” says Grover. “It is currently like we will not have a dust storm, but we still have [some time] to go and a dust storm may blow up for a few days.”
For space enthusiasts, InSight’s landing can produce memories of NASA’s last mission to Mars – when the space agency landed the curiosity pipes on the red plane’s surface. For this trip, the landing was called “Seven Minutes of Terror”. The marking referred to that curiosity also needs to make a synchronized routine in a short period of time to come down in one piece. While using parachutes and bumpers, it was necessary to lower curiosity with a special knot called a skyscraper at the end of autumn so that it could land safely.
At 789 pounds, InSight is not as heavy as Nearly 2,000 pounds Curiosity, so landing need not be so complicated (ie no skyscraper is needed). However, is similar in size and weight to another recent Marian lander who did not go well. In 2016, Roscosmos and the European Space Agency tried to land a joint spacecraft called Schiaparelli on Mars, to test landing technicians for a future robber. However, during its descent, the landlord’s embedded computer received bad data from the spacecraft’s instrument, which led to the vehicle releasing its parachute earlier than planned. As a result, Schiaparelli hit the Martian ground and created a new crater on the surface.
Since 1999, when the agency lost Mars Polar Lander, NASA has landed its vehicles safely on the red planet, so hopefully it’s a bit better for InSight. But the newer Schiaparelli event highlights how each part of the landing pad must be done as planned – without the help of them on earth. At InSight’s landing, a light signal from our planet will take about eight minutes to reach Mars. “When we understand what happens to landing, there are enough delays that we can not actually control the vehicle from the ground,” Grover says. “Everything must be completely autonomous and automated.”
When InSight hits the atmosphere, the automatic routine begins. At that time, InSight will move around 12,300 miles per hour. Landers fall, equipped with a heat shield pointing downwards. It is to protect the spacecraft’s sensitive instrument from temperatures reaching a peak of 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit. The atmosphere slows the farmer to less than 1000 miles per hour.
When the vehicle reaches approximately seven miles above the surface, the farmer sets a supersonic parachute to slow down further. The heat shield eventually drops away and when the farmer reaches a mile high, it falls away from the rear panel with the parachute and ignites its built-in thrusters. These engines maneuver the farmer to a safe place and carefully lower the spacecraft down to the ground.
During the past year, the mission group conducted several dressing exercises for the landing, lasting for days. In these events, the InSight team mimicked what to do in the meantime until landing, using a pilot space ship located at Denver Headquarters in Lockheed Martin – the primary contractor of InSight. Before the devastating downturn, engineers will constantly assess how the weather is like Mars and what the spacecraft lane looks like. They will then make tweaks to the planned landing sequence, depending on the most up-to-date information they have. For example, if a dust storm happens to evolve before landing, they will change the time when the parachute turns out to fit the best in the atmosphere.
They also made a dress rehearsal where everything went off the rails. “We have a team of gremlins who work behind the scenes throwing all sorts of problems and issuing us to work through the rehearsal,” Grover says. “That particular is very fun and really span the team and get ready for what can come in during landing. “
The team completed its final rehearsal in October, so it’s time for the real thing. InSight is scheduled to land on Mars at around 3 PM ET on November 26. Once upon a time, the landlord will send out a firecrack about 10 seconds after touchdown to warn engineers on Earth that the spacecraft is alive and steadily in place. There is also an opportunity to get an external perspective on how the landing went. Two experimental probes, known as MarCO satellites, ride to RedPlanet with the lander, and they will try to provide information about landing from space.
“Since they are experimental, we are not sure they will work on landing day, says Grover. “But if we have data, we get a lot of information about the landlord, and we know with great clarity that we will succeed on the surface.”
If all goes well with landing (which will lead to a small party), the engineers will then spend the next two to three months using InSights instrument. The farmer has two main tools for studying Martian interior: a seismometer for listening to Mars quakes and a self-healing nail that will dive 16 feet below ground to take the planet’s temperature. InSight is equipped with a robot arm that gingerly places the two instruments away from the lander. And as soon as they have been installed, the data collected from these instruments will help researchers better understand the types of stones in Mars’s mantle and core.
However, these instruments are very sensitive, and the seismometer must remain very still for best data. If the seismometer is deployed too close to InSight, even small vibration on the lander, perhaps caused by wind, may wipe data. Therefore, researchers will spend a few weeks to find the best places to distribute these instruments, using InSights cameras. “If you ever play these klospel on carnival, you want to be sure that you are perfectly adapted to the price you want before you press the button to try it.” Elizabeth Barrett, a science engineer at NASA JPL, tells The Verge .
NASA researchers have specifically chosen the flatest, most boring place on Mars to help the instruments do their best job. But Barrett says the instruments can still work if InSight happens to land on a slope of some kind. “We have a slight slope that we can still accept and fulfill our mission goals,” says Barrett. “We can work around placing the instruments in places that may not be perfect for them, but they can actually get good scientific data.”
Researchers will surely know what InSights terrain looks like when landing. But for now the focus is on making sure the landing goes according to plan. Too many on the team will touch the Mars surface to represent years of hard work and preparation that culminated in a single event. “We are happy,” said Grover, anticipating the moment he is in the control room for the landing. “After spending so many years on it, when data comes out, it’s a bit surreal.”