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A 3 Legged Geologist To Go To Mars From U.S.

The mission is designed to last one full Martian year, the equivalent of two Earth years.

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NASA, Insight, Martian Wind
This is an illustration showing a simulated view of NASA's InSight lander about to land on the surface of Mars. This view shows the underside of the spacecraft. VOA

Mars is about to get its first U.S. visitor in years: a three-legged, one-armed geologist to dig deep and listen for quakes.

NASA’s InSight makes its grand entrance through the rose-tinted Martian skies on Monday, after a six-month, 300 million-mile (480 million-kilometer) journey. It will be the first American spacecraft to land since the Curiosity rover in 2012 and the first dedicated to exploring underground.

NASA is going with a tried-and-true method to get this mechanical miner to the surface of the red planet. Engine firings will slow its final descent and the spacecraft will plop down on its rigid legs, mimicking the landings of earlier successful missions.

That’s where old school ends on this $1 billion U.S.-European effort.

Once flight controllers in California determine the coast is clear at the landing site — fairly flat and rock free — InSight’s 6-foot (1.8-meter) arm will remove the two main science experiments from the lander’s deck and place them directly on the Martian surface.

Mars
The next Mars close approach will be on October 6, 2020. Pixabay

No spacecraft has attempted anything like that before.

The firsts don’t stop there.

One experiment will attempt to penetrate 16 feet (5 meters) into Mars, using a self-hammering nail with heat sensors to gauge the planet’s internal temperature. That would shatter the out-of-this-world depth record of 8 feet (2 { meters) drilled by the Apollo moonwalkers nearly a half-century ago for lunar heat measurements.

The astronauts also left behind instruments to measure moonquakes. InSight carries the first seismometers to monitor for marsquakes — if they exist. Yet another experiment will calculate Mars’ wobble, providing clues about the planet’s core.

It won’t be looking for signs of life, past or present. No life detectors are on board.

The spacecraft is like a self-sufficient robot, said lead scientist Bruce Banerdt of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Mars
Scientists found layers of ice on the surface of Mars. Wikimedia Commons

“It’s got its own brain. It’s got an arm that can manipulate things around. It can listen with its seismometer. It can feel things with the pressure sensors and the temperature sensors. It pulls its own power out of the sun,” he said.

By scoping out the insides of Mars, scientists could learn how our neighbor — and other rocky worlds, including the Earth and moon — formed and transformed over billions of years. Mars is much less geologically active than Earth, and so its interior is closer to being in its original state — a tantalizing time capsule.

InSight stands to “revolutionize the way we think about the inside of the planet,” said NASA’s science mission chief, Thomas Zurbuchen.

But first, the 800-pound (360-kilogram) vehicle needs to get safely to the Martian surface. This time, there won’t be a ball bouncing down with the spacecraft tucked inside, like there were for the Spirit and Opportunity rovers in 2004. And there won’t be a sky crane to lower the lander like there was for the six-wheeled Curiosity during its dramatic “seven minutes of terror.”

“That was crazy,” acknowledged InSight’s project manager, Tom Hoffman. But he noted, “Any time you’re trying to land on Mars, it’s crazy, frankly. I don’t think there’s a sane way to do it.”

Access Mars
Google collaborated with NASA to produce Access Mars that lets users wander the actual dunes and valleys explored by NASA’s Curiosity rover.. Wikimedia

No matter how it’s done, getting to Mars and landing there is hard — and unforgiving.

Earth’s success rate at Mars is a mere 40 percent. That includes planetary flybys dating back to the early 1960s, as well as orbiters and landers.

While it’s had its share of flops, the U.S. has by far the best track record. No one else has managed to land and operate a spacecraft on Mars. Two years ago, a European lander came in so fast, its descent system askew, that it carved out a crater on impact.

This time, NASA is borrowing a page from the 1976 twin Vikings and the 2008 Phoenix, which also were stationary and three-legged.

“But you never know what Mars is going to do,” Hoffman said. “Just because we’ve done it before doesn’t mean we’re not nervous and excited about doing it again.”

Wind gusts could send the spacecraft into a dangerous tumble during descent, or the parachute could get tangled. A dust storm like the one that enveloped Mars this past summer could hamper InSight’s ability to generate solar power. A leg could buckle. The arm could jam.

NASA, opportunity, Mars
The nearly 15-year-old rover is not out of the woods yet as it could take weeks, or even months, for the dust to start settling., Pixabay

The tensest time for flight controllers in Pasadena, California: the six minutes from the time the spacecraft hits Mars’ atmosphere and touchdown. They’ll have jars of peanuts on hand — a good-luck tradition dating back to 1964’s successful Ranger 7 moon mission.

InSight will enter Mars’ atmosphere at a supersonic 12,300 mph (19,800 kph), relying on its white nylon parachute and a series of engine firings to slow down enough for a soft upright landing on Mars’ Elysium Planitia, a sizable equatorial plain.

Hoffman hopes it’s “like a Walmart parking lot in Kansas.”

The flatter the better so the lander doesn’t tip over, ending the mission, and so the robotic arm can set the science instruments down.

InSight — short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport — will rest close to the ground, its top deck barely a yard, or meter, above the surface. Once its twin circular solar panels open, the lander will occupy the space of a large car.

If NASA gets lucky, a pair of briefcase-size satellites trailing InSight since their joint May liftoff could provide near-live updates during the lander’s descent. There’s an eight-minute lag in communications between Earth and Mars.

NASA, opportunity, Mars
Mars fantasy landscape. Representational image. Pixabay.

The experimental CubeSats, dubbed WALL-E and EVE from the 2008 animated movie, will zoom past Mars and remain in perpetual orbit around the sun, their technology demonstration complete.

If WALL-E and EVE are mute, landing news will come from NASA orbiters at Mars, just not as quickly.

The first pictures of the landing site should start flowing shortly after touchdown. It will be at least 10 weeks before the science instruments are deployed. Add another several weeks for the heat probe to bury into Mars.

Also Read: NASA Delivers Supplies To The Space Station

The mission is designed to last one full Martian year, the equivalent of two Earth years.

With landing day so close to Thanksgiving, many of the flight controllers will be eating turkey at their desks on the holiday.

Hoffman expects his team will wait until Monday to give full and proper thanks. (VOA)

Next Story

NASA Making a ‘Rigorous’ Search for Vikram with Fresh Lunar Pictures

LRO will next fly around the region on November 10 and it will be another good opportunity with favourable lighting conditions for pictures, Petro said

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nasa, trump, moon mission
NASA also plans to build a space outpost in lunar orbit that can relay astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024. VOA

BY ARUL LOUIS

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) has taken a fresh set of pictures under better lighting conditions of the area where the Indian moon lander Vikram likely ended up and experts will be making a rigorous search for it, according to LRO Project Scientist Noah Petro.

“The lighting conditions on Monday were much more favourable, (with) less shadow in the region” compared to last month, Petro told IANS on Wednesday.

Scientists were not able to locate the Vikram in the pictures taken during the LRO’s last flyover on September 17, when it was dusk on the moon and the long shadows that covered much of the terrain may be hidden in it, NASA said at that time.

“We flew over the landing site on Monday and the camera team is still evaluating images, so we should know more in the next few days,” Noah said.

Chandrayaan 2, India, Moon
Chandrayaan-2, India’s ambitious expedition to the moon’s south pole, made headlines globally even as Vikram, the lander of the mission, lost contact with the orbiter. Pixabay

“We will do a careful search, we will be as rigorous as possible” and “we will find out soon” what happened to the Vikram moon lander, said Petro, who is based at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland near Washington.

“This is a large area, we don’t know exactly where we have to look. So it will take some time to search the images because we are looking over a very, very large area,” he added.

Also Read: AI Can be a Helpful Tool for Government to Deliver Public Services

Vikram lost contact with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) following its launch from Chandraayan 2 moon orbiter on September 6 and likely landed in an area around the moon’s South Pole.

LRO will next fly around the region on November 10 and it will be another good opportunity with favourable lighting conditions for pictures, Petro said. (IANS)