CAPE CANAVERAL, FLORIDA – Just a day in advance, NASA's InSight space probe aimed to land on Mars, with the same bull's-eye, zooming in like an arrow without turning back.
The InSight journey of six months and 300 million miles (482 million km) comes to a precarious grand final Monday afternoon.
The robotic geologist – designed to explore the interior of Mars, from the surface to the core – must go from 12,300 miles per hour (19,800 km / h) to zero in six flat minutes while piercing the Martian atmosphere, opening a parachute, shooting engines of descent and, hopefully, lands on three legs.
It is NASA's first attempt to land on Mars in six years, and everyone involved is understandably anxious.
The principal official of the scientific mission of NASA, Thomas Zurbuchen, has confided to the Sunday that his stomach is already seething. The hardest thing is to sit on his hands and do nothing, he said, except hope and pray that everything goes perfectly for InSight.
"Landing on Mars is one of the most difficult jobs people need to do in planetary exploration," noted InSight's chief scientist, Bruce Banerdt. "It's such a difficult thing, it's such a dangerous thing that there's always a pretty unpleasant possibility that something can go wrong."
The success rate of the Earth on Mars is 40%, counting each attempt at close flight, orbital flight and landing by the United States, Russia and other countries dating back to 1960.
But the United States has made seven successful Mars landings over the past three decades. With just one failed touchdown, it's an enviable record. No other country has managed to set up and operate a spacecraft on the dusty red surface.
InSight could deliver its eighth victory to NASA.
He's filming for Elysium Planitia, a plain near the Martian equator that the InSight team hopes is flat like a parking lot in Kansas with a few, if any, pebbles. This is not a collection for rocks. Instead, the stationary 800-pound (360 kilogram) lander will use its 1.8-meter robotic arm to place a mechanical mole and a seismometer on the ground.
The self-pounding mole digs 16 feet (5 meters) downwards to measure the planet's internal heat, while the ultra-high-tech seismograph listens to possible earthquakes. Nothing similar has been tried before at our smaller neighbor, almost 100 million miles (160 million kilometers) away.
No experiment has ever been moved robomically from the spacecraft to the actual Martian surface. No lander has dug deeper than several inches, and no seismometer has ever worked on Mars.
Examining the deeper and darker interior of Mars – still preserved from its early days – scientists hope to create 3D images that can reveal how the rocky planets of our solar system formed 4.5 billion years ago and why they turned out to be so different. One of the big questions is what made Earth so hospitable to life.
Mars once had rivers and flowing lakes; the deltas and the flower beds are now dry and the cold planet. Venus is a furnace because of its thick atmosphere, which traps heat. Mercury, closer to the sun, has a well-cooked surface.
According to Banerdt, the planetary know-how obtained by the one billion dollar operation of InSight, at two years, could even extend to rocky worlds outside our solar system. The findings on Mars could help explain the type of conditions in these so-called extrasolar planets "and how they fit into the story that we are trying to understand how the planets are formed," he said.
Focusing on planetary building blocks, InSight has no life sensing capabilities. This will be left for future rovers. For example, the Mars 2020 mission of NASA will collect rocks for a possible return that could contain evidence of ancient life.
Because so much time has passed since the last NASA Martian mainland – the Curiosity rover in 2012 – the mania of Mars is gripping not only the space and scientific communities, but the common people.
Observation parties are planned from coast to coast in museums, planetariums and libraries, as well as in France, where the InSight seismometer was designed and built. NASDAQ's giant screen in New York City, Times Square, will begin broadcasting NASA Television an hour before InSight's scheduled time at 3pm. EST touchdown; as well as the Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Air and Space Museum in Chantilly, Virginia, and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. The InSight space probe was built near Denver by Lockheed Martin.
But the real action, at least on Earth, will take place at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, home to the InSight Air Control Team. NASA provides a special 360-degree online transmission from the control center.
Touchdown confirmation may take minutes or hours. At a minimum, there is an eight-minute communication interval between Mars and the Earth.
A pair of suitcase-sized satellites that follow InSight from takeoff in May will try to transmit its radio signals to Earth, with a potential delay of less than nine minutes. These experimental CubeSat will fly over the red planet without stopping. The signals could also travel directly from InSight to radio telescopes in West Virginia and Germany. It will take more time to listen to NASA's Mars orbiters.
Project manager Tom Hoffman said he is doing his best to stay calmly outside as the hours go down. Once the InSight phones return home from the surface of Mars, however, he expects to behave like his three young grandchildren during Thanksgiving dinner, running like crazy and screaming.
"Just to warn anyone sitting next to me … I'm about to unleash my 4-year-old child, so be careful," he said.