Nasa’s first spacecraft built to travel the deep interior of another planet rushed toward a landing scheduled for Monday on a barren, vast plain on Mars, carrying equipment to detect seismic rumblings and planetary heat never measured anywhere but on Earth.
After sailing 548 million km on a six-month journey through deep space, InSight, the robotic lander was due to land on the rock-strewn, dusty surface of Mars at about 8 pm GMT.
If all goes following plans, InSight will bolt through the Martian atmosphere at 19,310 kilometres/hour. Decelerate by friction, deployment of retro rockets and a giant parachute, Insight will fall 77 miles through red Martian skies to the surface on 7 minutes, travelling at 8 kilometres/hr by the time it touches the land.
The stationary examination, launched in May from California, will then cease for 15 minutes for the dust particles to settle, around its landing site, before disk-like solar panels are unfolded like wings to supply power to the spacecraft.
The regulatory team at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) near Los Angeles expects to receive immediate confirmation of the craft’s landing from data transferred by a pair of mini satellites that were launched with Insight and will be travelling past Mars.
The JPL regulators also hope to receive a picture of the probe’s new surroundings on the smooth, flat Martian surface close to the planets equator know as the Elysium Planitia.
The spacecraft’s primary instrument is a French-built seismometer, built to record the minimal vibrations from ‘marsquakes’ and asteroid impacts around the planet. The device, to be installed on the surface by the lander’s robotic arm, is so sensitive it can detect a seismic wave just half the radius of a hydrogen atom.
Nasa scientists say it will take three to four months for the main instruments to be installed and put into operation.