CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - NASA's InSight spacecraft aimed for a bull's-eye touchdown on Mars Monday afternoon, zooming in like an arrow with no turning back.
“Immediately, we're going to deploy some solar array panels to start getting the power to operate from the surface of Mars, then, we'll do a very methodical deployment of sensors on the surface from the lander body itself and have fun drilling down into the surface of Mars,” NASA Launch Dir. Tim Dunn said.
The robotic geologist - designed to explore Mars' insides, surface to core - went from 12,300 mph (19,800 kph) to zero in six minutes flat as it pierced the Martian atmosphere, popped out of a parachute, fired its descent engines and landed on three legs.
WATCH BELOW: Mission control live of InSight landing:
It was NASA's first attempt to land on Mars in six years, and all those involved were understandably anxious.
NASA's top science mission official, Thomas Zurbuchen, confided Sunday that his stomach was churning. The hardest thing was 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," InSight's lead scientist, Bruce Banerdt said. "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 four 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 handed 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 (360-kilogram) lander will use its 6-foot (1.8-meter) robotic arm to place a mechanical mole and seismometer on the ground.
It’s almost time! In less than 15 hours, I’ll plunge through the #Martian atmosphere. But before I do, my team tweaked my flight path one last time to ensure I’m on track for my #MarsLanding tomorrow. Read: https://t.co/6ekCBE2vUW pic.twitter.com/HiejIwCoHb— NASAInSight (@NASAInSight) November 26, 2018
The self-hammering mole will burrow 16 feet (5 meters) 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 (160 million kilometers) away.
No experiments have ever been moved robotically from the spacecraft to the actual Martian surface. No lander has dug deeper than several inches, and no seismometer has ever worked on Mars.
By examining the deepest, darkest interior of Mars - still preserved from its earliest days - scientists hope to create 3D images that could reveal how our solar system's rocky planets formed 4.5 billion years ago and why they turned out so different. One of the big questions is what made Earth so hospitable to life.
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Mars once had flowing rivers and lakes; the deltas and lake beds are now dry, and the planet cold. Venus is a furnace because of its thick, heat-trapping atmosphere. Mercury, closest to the sun, has a surface that's baked.
The planetary know-how gained from InSight's $1 billion, two-year operation could even spill over to rocky worlds beyond our solar system, according to Banerdt. The findings on Mars could help explain the type of conditions at these so-called exoplanets "and how they fit into the story that we're trying to figure out for how planets form," he said.
Concentrating on planetary building blocks, InSight has no life-detecting capability. That will be left for future rovers. NASA's Mars 2020 mission, for instance, will collect rocks for eventual return that could hold evidence of ancient life.
Because it's been so long since NASA's last Martian landfall - the Curiosity rover in 2012 - Mars mania is gripping not only the space and science communities, but everyday folks.
The InSight spacecraft was built near Denver by Lockheed Martin.
A pair of briefcase-size satellites trailing InSight since liftoff in May will try to relay its radio signals to Earth, with a potential lag time of under nine minutes. These experimental CubeSats will fly right past the red planet without stopping. Signals also could travel straight from InSight to radio telescopes in West Virginia and Germany. It will take longer to hear from NASA's Mars orbiters.
Project manager Tom Hoffman said he's trying his best to stay outwardly calm as the hours tick down. Once InSight phones home from the Martian surface, though, he expects to behave much like his three young grandsons did at Thanksgiving dinner, running around like crazy and screaming.
"Just to warn anybody who's sitting near me ... I'm going to unleash my inner 4-year-old on you, so be careful," he said.
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