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In just under 3 hours, NASA ’s InSight lander is scheduled to complete a seven-month journey from Southern California to the surface of Mars. InSight’s mission to study the deep interior of Mars is the first of its kind and if its landing is successful, NASA’s scientists expect the robotic probe to reveal some of the secrets of the red planet’s core. 

Though NASA engineers have been guiding InSights movements and calculating its trajectory for months, they will soon relinquish control of the probe and wait in anticipation of the probe landing safely on the second smallest planet in our solar system. Landing on Mars is no easy feat. Since the United State’s first successful mission to Mars in 1965, over 60 percent of spacecraft that have been sent to Earth’s neighboring planet have been unsuccessful— so, for this robotic probe, the stakes are high!

After cruising 301,223,981 miles, to reach a planet that is a mere 91 million miles away from Earth, InSight will fly through the Martian air at an initial speed of 12,300 mph. Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, calculate that InSight must hit the atmosphere at exactly 12 degrees, and the margin of error is minute. Any deviance from this measurement would cause the probe to burst into flames or bounce off into deep space. If all goes according to plans, InSight will enter Mars’ thin atmosphere at hypersonic speeds and descend with a parachute before using auxiliary rockets to slow its speed and land on the rocky surface—without human help.  Scientists dub the suspenseful period of travel between entering the atmosphere and landing the “seven minutes of terror” because the spacecraft is out of their control.  Thanks to some pretty incredible technology, you can track InSight in real time and tune into NASA’s live feed to watch InSight’s landing on Monday, November 26th at 12 pm (3 pm ET).

Artist concept of InSight approaching Mars. Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech

What can we learn from Mars?

Mars is a dusty, cold, desert of a planet whose thin atmosphere and icy temperatures (-81 degrees Fahrenheit) make it impossible for humans to survive there.  Scientists have found reasons to believe that billions of years ago, Mars was wetter, warmer, and had a thicker atmosphere. Could the planet ever have sustained life as we know it? Perhaps InSight will provide the answer. 

Mars true-color globe showing Terra Meridiani. Credits: NASA/Greg Shirah

Artist concept of InSight approaching Mars. Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Click to read a cute comic strip about the InSight by the Oatmeal

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