NASA's InSight probe nears Mars landing

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The landing is a devilishly hard feat. InSight needs to navigate a potentially perilous journey through the Martian atmosphere to reach the surface.

Such moon expeditions, Clarke said, will not only give NASA a chance to "learn our lessons" on a non-Earth body, but it is also far closer than Mars.

Unlike its roving companions, InSight will not be directly searching for signs of life on Mars.

The power, which NASA reckoned would be enough run a household blender, will drive the three main instruments carried by the lander.

The smaller, 880-pound (360 kg) InSight - its name is short for Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport - marks the 21st US-launched Mars missions, dating back to the Mariner fly-bys of the 1960s.

NASA's InSight probe landed successfully on Mars Monday shortly before 3 p.m. ET. Therefore, if you do want to watch it and be certain you don't miss a thing, you might want to start checking at around 7:30 pm at the latest. At watch parties around the globe - NASA's headquarters in Washington, the Nasdaq tower in Times Square, the grand hall of the Museum of Sciences and Industry in Paris, a public library in Haines, Alaska, - legs jiggled and fingers were crossed as minutes ticked toward the beginning of entry, descent and landing. Finally, the long-lived 2001 Mars Odyssey orbiter will send its own recording of the landing events by 20:35 EST, including confirmation that the vital solar arrays have been deployed.

This afternoon, it will pierce the Martian atmosphere at 12,000 miles per hour. Any steeper, and the probe will burn itself up in a spectacular and fiery death. The lander will be broadcasting information during entry, descent and landing in the UHF band to NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which can not simultaneously receive in one band and transmit in another. This time around, InSight will rely on a heat shield, a parachute and a 12-thruster system developed by Aerojet Rocketdyne in Redmond, Wash.

Explosives will eject the heat shield 15 seconds later, exposing the InSight probe hidden inside.

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In another two minutes, a supersonic parachute deployed to help slow down the spacecraft.

45 seconds before InSight lands, it will drop out of the shell and fall toward the surface. As soon as it leaves the shell, its landing rockets will ignite.

"Once we get to the surface, InSight is a slow-motion mission", InSight principal investigator Bruce Banerdt said during Sunday's news conference.

Scottish scientists are working with NASA to study the formation of Mars - as a space mission lands on the Red Planet tonight.

All those readings of Mars' seismic activity, internal heat flow and planetary rotation should help scientists get a better fix on the size and composition of Mars' core - which, in turn, could reveal much about how the planet was formed.

InSight also is fitted with a German-made drill to burrow as much as 16 feet (5 meters) underground, pulling behind it a rope-like thermal probe to measure heat flowing from inside the planet.

"Many of the hypotheses that we will be trying to test have to do with the details of that process, such as how long it took, whether it was turbulent or calm, and how efficiently heat was able to escape from the depths to the surface", he said.

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