InSight lander: Nasa probe approaches Mars

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A spacecraft that cost almost a billion dollars is on course to make a perilous landing on Mars today United States time, if it can survive a high-speed approach and the scorching heat of entering the Red Planet's atmosphere, a process Nasa has nicknamed "six and a half minutes of terror".

This is NASA's eighth successful Mars landing - and it first in six years since the Curiosity rover in 2012.

An undated handout illustration made available by NASA shows a simulated view of NASA's InSight lander descending towards the surface of Mars on its parachute.

Last week the space agency announced that it has selected the location where its Mars 2020 Rover will land on the Red Planet.

The stationary probe, launched in May from California, will then pause for 16 minutes for the dust to settle, literally, around its landing site, before disc-shaped solar panels are unfurled like wings to provide power to the spacecraft.

If all goes according to plan, InSight will streak into the pink Martian sky at 12,000 miles per hour (19,310 kilometers per hour). This meant reinforcing InSight's heat shield and parachute suspension lines.

Ten seconds after losing its heat shield, InSight will be extending its landing legs.

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A NASA spacecraft has landed on Mars to explore the planet's interior. Both MarCO and MRO will communicate with InSight via UHF radio signal, but while both will also send this information back to Earth following landing, only the CubeSats will be able to do so immediately. At 3 P.M. EST the spacecraft should touch down on Mars. "The current trajectory is completely good". "While I'm looking forward to those first images from the surface, I am even more eager to see the first data sets revealing what is happening deep below our landing pads".

The MarCO spacecraft hitched a ride with InSight. Signals will come from various sources - the lander during descent; two experimental briefcase-sized spacecraft called MarCOs that flying behind InSight; InSight itself after landing; the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) spacecraft during descent; the 2001 Mars Odyssey after InSight's touchdown. "I can't wait to start seeing marsquakes", Hoffman said. "After that, we should be in good shape".

Mars Insight's goal is listen for quakes and tremors as a way to unveil the Red Planet's inner mysteries, how it formed billions of years ago, and by extension, how other rocky planets like Earth took shape.

Once the probe is about 4 miles above the surface, the radar comes on.

The landing will take place on a giant volcanic plain called Elysium Planitia - Curiosity is now to the north of this location. We don't want a slope that's too steep.

Bruce Banerdt, JPL's principal investigator for the InSight mission, said it will still be some time before any actual seismology data is collected by the lander. One, the lander will land on its three feet and to prevent mishaps, a flat surface would be helpful. Over the course of few weeks, it will drive a rod 5 meters into the surface with thousands of strokes of a tungsten hammer, slipping around small rocks-and hopefully not hitting large ones. The heat probe will measure how much heat is escaping from the planet, and how quickly-a clue to when it was most volcanically active.

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