Earth’s latest mission to Mars is reaching its conclusion Monday, and it’s got NASA experts and the interested public holding their collective breath.
NASA’s InSight spacecraft is due to land on the red planet after traveling there over the last six months.
But while the journey has been long, the riskiest moment is still ahead. InSight’s actual landing on Mars is difficult, and it’s critical that it is completed perfectly. The spacecraft must decelerate from 12,300 mph to zero in six minutes, deploy a parachute, fire its 12 descent engines, and then land—all of which is made especially hard by Mars’ strong gravitational pull and wispy atmosphere.
What’s more, Monday afternoon will be the first time NASA has attempted to land on Mars in six years, so the stakes are higher. Compared to other countries, the U.S. has an impressive record of successfully landing on Mars seven times in 40 years and failing just once. Overall, Earth’s success rate is just 40%.
The odds are in NASA’s favor, but it will be some time until the world finds out whether the landing is successful. With a several minute communication delay between the lander and Earth, neither mission control nor public observers will know what’s happening real time. That means that NASA won’t know whether or not InSight has successfully landed on Mars’ surface until after the attempted landing takes place.
Should the mission be successful, InSight’s objective is to study the interior of Mars and gather information about its “vital signs, its pulse, and temperature,” according to NASA. The lander will remain in place while a robotic arm sets a mechanical mole and a seismometer on the ground.
The landing is due to take place at noon Pacific time and will be viewable on NASA’s website.