If all goes well, a NASA probe named InSight will land near the Martian equator shortly before 3 p.m. EST. Having launched on May 5, 2018 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California as it enters the atmosphere of Mars, InSight will be traveling at 14,100 miles per hour.
If all goes as hoped, NASA will catch word of a safe landing thanks to two briefcase-size spacecraft that launched with InSight, together called Mars Cube One (MarCO). A radio signal from Mars to Earth now takes about eight minutes and seven seconds to get here.
"We've studied Mars from orbit and from the surface since 1965, learning about its weather, atmosphere, geology and surface chemistry", Lori Glaze, acting director of the Planetary Science Division in NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said in a press release. Dust storms, a common feature of Mars, pose no problem for InSight's landing.
The Lander had originally been scheduled to blast off in March 2016, but NASA suspended its launch preparations when a vacuum leak was found in the craft's prime science instrument.
Last week the space agency announced that it has selected the location where its Mars 2020 Rover will land on the Red Planet. If InSight comes into too shallow, the spacecraft could skip off the thin atmosphere, and an entry angle that is too steep would produce too much thermal heating. Only about 40 percent of the landers and rovers sent to the red planet during the last five decades have ever made it safely down to the surface, and of the worldwide space agencies that have tried, only NASA has succeeded in making a soft landing on Mars.
- At 1947 GMT the spacecraft is hurtling through space at a speed of 12,300 miles per hour (19,800 kilometers per hour) as it begins to enter Mars' atmosphere. This is when the intense heat caused a temporary drop in the radio signal from the craft. Up to now, the success rate at the red planet was only 40 percent, counting every attempted flyby, orbital flight and landing by the U.S., Russian Federation and other countries since 1960. InSight's actual landing on Mars is hard, and it's critical that it is completed perfectly.
Once all this work is complete, InSight can finally get down to business, using the 50 to 100 marsquakes it might see over its 2-year primary mission to reveal the dimensions and composition of the martian interior-and, in turn, the story of its creation. That is why NASA scientists have dubbed it "7 minutes of terror". "InSight scientists can't wait to explore the heart of Mars". And Tuesday night, the Mars Odyssey orbiter should confirm that the spacecraft's solar arrays have unfurled.
InSight is targeting a region known as Elysium Planitia, which is basically Latin for "heavenly plain". Mission managers wanted a boring spot - they want the probe to sit quietly.
InSight is the first dedicated to unlocking secrets from deep below the Martian surface.
By mapping what Mars looks like on the inside, the InSight mission could also help to explain the violent processes that shaped other rocky planets in the solar system at the same time, William "Bruce" Banerdt, a research scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and the principal investigator for InSight, said in a video statement.
It will measure the degree to which Mars wobbles as it rotates to unlock secrets about the planet's core.