JPL-Managed Mars Probe Set to Land; Will Study Red Planet's Interior

Insight mission about to land on Mars

PASADENA (CNS) - After more than six months in transit, a probe managed by Pasadena-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory is scheduled to land on Mars today, beginning the first mission designed to study the center of the Red Planet.

The InSight mission -- short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport -- is the first ever dedicated to Mars' deep interior, and it will be the first NASA mission since the Apollo moon landings to place a seismometer on the soil of another celestial body.

The spacecraft, which launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Barbara County in May, is not a rover. It is designed to carry out its mission from a stationary position, and it is expected to land and set up shop in an area known as the Elysium Planitia, which JPL officials dubbed “the biggest parking lot on Mars,” providing a flat solid surface for the craft to do its work.

InSight is scheduled to touch down on Mars around noon California time. But it's still unclear exactly when NASA and JPL officials will be able to confirm that the craft has successfully landed. Confirmation will be made through monitoring of InSight's radio signals by a variety of spacecraft and Earth-based telescopes. But given delays in collecting such information, “the mission team may know right away when InSight touches down, or they may have to wait up to several hours,” according to JPL.

As the spacecraft speeds toward Mars and begins descending through the thin atmosphere -- which lacks the type of friction that usually slows landing objects -- a parachute will be deployed and retro rockets will be fired to ease the descent. Suspended legs will also be used to absorb some of the shock.

JPL officials noted that the spacecraft was designed with a durable heat shield that can protect it against a dust storm if necessary while landing.

Once it lands, the spacecraft will send out a confirmation signal, using a “tone beacon” that mission managers hope will be picked up by radio telescopes. Another signal will be sent seven minutes later, this time using a more powerful antenna and transmitting information to indicate if the craft is in a “healthy, functioning state.”

The InSight mission is aimed at probing the deep interior of Mars in hopes of shedding light on how similar worlds -- like Earth and the moon -- were created, according to JPL. Mission officials noted that Mars and Earth were “molded from the same primordial stuff more than 4.5 billion years ago...”

“By comparing Earth's interior to that of Mars, InSight's team members hope to better understand our solar system,” according to JPL. “What they learn might even aid the search for Earth-like exoplanets, narrowing down which ones might be able to support life. So while InSight is a Mars mission, it's also much more than a Mars mission.”

Photo: Getty Images

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