Mars landing looms for NASA; anxiety building a day out

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With just a day to go, NASA’s InSight spacecraft aimed for a bull’s-eye touchdown on Mars, zooming in like an arrow with no turning back.

InSight’s journey of six months and 300 million miles comes to a precarious grand finale Monday afternoon.

The robotic geologist — designed to explore Mars’ insides, surface to core — must go from 12,300 mph to zero in six minutes flat as it pierces the Martian atmosphere, pops out a parachute, fires its descent engines and, hopefully, lands on three legs.

It is NASA’s first attempt to land on Mars in six years, and all those involved are understandably anxious.

NASA’s top science mission official, Thomas Zurbuchen, confided Sunday that his stomach is already churning. The hardest thing is sitting on his hands and doing nothing, he said, except hoping and praying everything goes perfectly for InSight.

“Landing on Mars is one of the hardest single jobs that people have to do in planetary exploration,” noted InSight’s lead scientist, Bruce Banerdt. “It’s such a difficult thing, it’s such a dangerous thing that there’s always a fairly uncomfortably large chance that something could go wrong.”

Earth’s success rate at Mars is 40 percent, counting every attempted flyby, orbital flight and landing by the U.S., Russia and other countries dating all the way back to 1960.

But the U.S. has pulled off seven successful Mars landings in the past three decades. With only one failed touchdown, it’s an enviable record. No other country has managed to set and operate a spacecraft on the dusty red surface.

InSight could hand NASA its eighth win.

It’s shooting for Elysium Planitia, a plain near the Martian equator that the InSight team hopes is as flat as a parking lot in Kansas with few, if any, rocks. This is no rock-collecting expedition. Instead, the stationary 800-pound lander will use its 6-foot (1.8-meter) robotic arm to place a mechanical mole and seismometer on the ground.

The self-hammering mole will burrow 16 feet down to measure the planet’s internal heat, while the ultra-high-tech seismometer listens for possible marsquakes. Nothing like this has been attempted before at our smaller next-door neighbor, nearly 100 million miles away.

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