NASA is preparing to send a robotic lander to Mars to map the interior of the red planet. The Mars InSight lander, built by Lockheed Martin, is based on the design of NASA’s Phoenix lander, which successfully touched down on Mars in 2008. It is expected to operate for at least two years, or one 687-day martian year.
The Atlas 5 rocket carrying the lander is scheduled to launch from Vandenberg in California. InSight is the first to be launched from the West Coast and will take a southerly trajectory over the Pacific Ocean. All previous interplanetary missions launched from the United States took off from Florida, but a busy Cape Canaveral launch schedule prompted the decision to launch from the West Coast. Since 1964, the United States has launched 22 robotic spacecraft to Mars, spending more than $20 billion.
This will be the first mission dedicated solely to investigating the interior of Mars. The mapping will be done by recording the faint vibrations of remote marsquakes. The lander will also be hammering a probe into the crust of the planet to take the temperature of its core. In another investigation, scientists hope to determine the core’s size, density and composition by measuring tiny changes in the InSight lander’s radio signals.
The Atlas 5’s Centaur second stage will launch InSight into a 171-day trajectory to Mars. The spacecraft will reach the red planet on Nov. 26, entering the thin martian atmosphere at roughly 13,200 mph. InSight will be hit with deceleration forces up to 7.4 times Earth’s gravity and heat shield temperatures as high as 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit.
The lander’s radar will be activated to help the flight computer determine the spacecraft’s altitude and rate of descent. At an altitude of 7.5 miles, InSight’s large parachute will unfurl to rapidly slow the descent to 295 mph. It will continue slowing until it descends to a five-mile-per-hour touchdown in the Elysium Planitia area 4.5 degrees north of the martian equator.
NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will be flying overhead at the time, recording telemetry from InSight for later relay to Earth. Tom Hoffman, the InSight project manager, said, “Hopefully, we won’t get any surprises on our landing day, but you never know. We’ve done a lot of testing, a lot of analysis to make sure we’ve done everything we possibly can to land safely, and I believe we’re going to do that.”