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6 Minutes of Terror...

As InSight enters Mars's atmosphere, it will be traveling at around 12,300 mph, generating a tremendous amount of heat. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Topics: Mars, NASA, Planetary Science, Space Exploration, Spaceflight

When NASA's InSight mission arrives at Mars on Monday (Nov. 26), the probe faces a formidable challenge — perhaps the most harrowing so far of its seven-month journey — touching down on the planet's surface.

Any given moment of the process of launching a spacecraft and propelling it toward a distant target in our solar system carries risks. But InSight's descent will be an especially nerve-wracking nail-biter for NASA: Mission control won't have any idea what's happening to the spacecraft in real time, due to the minutes-long delay in the craft's transmission signal.

During the critical minutes after InSight breaches Mars' atmosphere, when the probe is hurtling toward the planet's surface, news of the lander's progress won't yet have reached Earth. For 6 long minutes, NASA engineers will tensely wait for InSight's status reports to catch up, leaving the team unable to confirm if InSight landed safely or if something unexpected went horribly wrong. The latter could leave the lander "dead" on the Martian surface.

There are three stages that InSight (short for Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) will undergo as it zooms toward the landing site: a rocket-powered trip through Mars' upper atmosphere; a parachute descent after ejecting the lander's protective heat shield; and a powered descent to the ground, slowed by 12 firing engines, according to NASA. First, the "cruise stage" will separate and the capsule will reposition itself so its heat shield faces the atmosphere, where the shield will heat up to more than 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit (1,000 degrees Celsius), Rob Manning, a systems engineer at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), said in a video.

Get Ready for InSight Mars Landing's '6 Minutes of Terror', Mindy Weisberger, Live Science

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