"InSight lander" by NASA/JPL-Caltech / Public Domain

NASA’s InSight lander has just six and a half minutes to land on Mars in one piece

Nov 21, 2018

By Loren Grush

Early next week, NASA will attempt the grueling feat of landing a spacecraft on Mars, hoping to add to its growing collection of tech on the Red Planet’s surface. This time, NASA hopes to place a robotic lander, called InSight, on a flat, boring part of the Martian terrain in order to study the planet’s interior. And to do that, the car-sized robot must perform a perfectly synchronized landing routine — one that will slow the vehicle down from more than 12,000 miles per hour to zero in just six-and-a-half minutes.

Launched on May 5th from California, InSight has been traveling through space for the last six months and is scheduled to enter Mars’ atmosphere on Monday, November 26th. During its descent to the surface, the lander will be subject to extremely high temperatures, speeds, and forces. To survive, InSight will autonomously go through dozens of programmed steps, such as deploying a supersonic parachute and igniting onboard thrusters. Each of the steps must happen at precisely the right time to help the lander touch down safely. “[We have] to take out all this energy we have when we arrive at Mars so we have a soft landing when we get to the surface,” Rob Grover, the systems lead on the landing for InSight at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, tells The Verge.

Such a complex procedure is needed because landing on Mars is no trivial task. The biggest obstacle that InSight’s engineers had to contend with is the planet’s atmosphere. Even though Mars’ atmosphere is quite thin — less than one-hundredth the density of Earth’s atmosphere — it’s thick enough to cause incoming vehicles to heat up on the way down to the ground. That means Martian spacecraft need proper shielding if they hope to reach the surface without melting. But because the atmosphere is thinner than ours, it also means that parachutes on Mars aren’t as effective at slowing down spacecraft as they are on Earth. Engineers had to add thrusters to ensure that the lander would touch down gently.

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