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“After a seven-month journey, Nasa’s InSight probe is about to reach Mars and – if touchdown goes to plan – embark on an unprecedented mission to map the planet’s interior.
The lander will aim for one of the dullest parts of the planet’s dusty surface, Elysium Planitia, a vast lava plain that the US space agency calls “the biggest parking lot on Mars”. The flat, rockless expanse was deemed the perfect place for InSight to record tremors unleashed by “Marsquakes” and to measure heat flow in the planet’s upper layers.
The $814m (£633m) mission will help scientists understand the Martian core, crust and mantle, allowing them for the first time to know how the planet formed at the dawn of the solar system 4.6bn years ago.
Landing a probe on Mars remains a tricky business for rocket scientists: only 40% of missions have succeeded. Nasa is the only space agency to have pulled off a landing on the planet, most recently in 2012 when the Curiosity rover was winched to the surface by a “sky crane”. In 2016 the European Space Agency attempted to put a lander on Mars, but the Schiaparelli probe switched off its retro-rockets too soon and smashed into the ground.
The InSight lander is expected to touch down at about 8pm GMT on Monday, and multiple critical steps will need to work perfectly. The spacecraft will hurtle into the thin Martian atmosphere at 13,200mph, deploy a parachute and fire 12 retro-thrusters to cushion its landing. Nasa calls the entry, descent and landing phase of its Mars missions the “seven minutes of terror”. Confirmation of the landing will be beamed back to Earth via two experimental cube satellites that have trailed the probe to its destination.”
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