'Marsquake': NASA spacecraft nears Red Planet to monitor earthquakes

The probe will also capture high-resolution images of the Red Planet, according to NPR's Joe Palca.

InSight will plunge through the thin Martian atmosphere, heatshield first, and use a parachute to slow down.

Once landed, the stationary probe was programmed to pause for 16 minutes for the dust to settle, literally, around its landing site, before two disc-shaped solar panels were to be unfurled like wings to provide power to the spacecraft.

In a touch of humor rarely seen from a founding member of the military-industrial complex, Lockheed Martin is changing its name and logo to Lockheed Martian for 24 hours to celebrate the landing of the Mars InSight spacecraft. "It gives us a chance to go back in time".

Viking 2, a previous mission to Mars did have a seismometer, but it stayed on the deck of the spacecraft.

But the USA has pulled off seven successful Mars landings in the past four decades.

But before that work begins, Nasa mission control in Pasadena, California, must endure what staff described as "six-and-a-half minutes of terror" between 7.47pm and 7.54pm as they monitor the final moments of the probe's descent from 300million miles away. The suitcase-size spacecraft, called MarCO, are the first cube satellites to fly into deep space. The Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) can detect ground vibrations that are smaller than a hydrogen atom, providing an unprecedented picture of the tectonic activity and geologic shifting of Mars.

A tiny cubesat cruising through interplanetary space has captured a new glimpse of Mars, just before watching NASA's InSight lander touch down the Red Planet. The Rover, which has more than 12 miles on its odometer, is now the only thing operating on the Martian surface.

Credit Emily Lakdawalla for The Planetary Society
Credit Emily Lakdawalla for The Planetary Society

Phoenix, however, was a great success, and the stationary lander outlasted NASA's expectations, surviving almost double the 90 Martian sols planned for the mission before succumbing to dust and cold in a way that we fervently hope the Opportunity rover has not. "Its data also will help scientists understand the formation of all rocky worlds, including our own".

The InSight lander aimed for a touchdown Monday afternoon, as anxiety built among those involved in the $1 billion worldwide effort.

The robotic geologist - created to explore Mars' mysterious insides - must go from 12,300 miles per hour (19,800 kph) to zero in six minutes flat as it pierces the Martian atmosphere, pops out a parachute, fires its descent engines and, hopefully, lands on three legs. No other country has managed to set and operate even a single spacecraft on the dusty surface. "But just getting to the surface of Mars is no mean feat". Flight controllers haven't given up hope yet that it will be revived.

PALCA: Marinan says the two MarCO spacecraft keep on going past Mars and into space.

InSight won't be looking for life on Mars. However, former astronaut Buzz Aldrin thinks that a slightly later target date of 2040 is more realistic.

Understanding how Mars formed could reveal more about the processes that formed Earth, too.

He envisions hundreds of thousands of people streaming to Mars in giant SpaceX ships and colonizing the red planet in order to continue the species. There are two almost identical MarCO spacecraft that launched with InSight last May and have been trailing the probe on its flight to Mars.

  • Carolyn Briggs