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Mars revisited: NASA spacecraft days away from risky landing

The mobile service tower is rolled back to reveal the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with NASA's InSight spacecraft onboard at Vandenberg Air Force Base on May 4, 2018. NASA’s three-legged, one-armed geologist known as InSight will make its grand entrance through the rose-tinted Martian skies on Monday.

Nearly seven months after thousands of space and science enthusiasts converged on the Central Coast to celebrate the start of the first-ever interplanetary mission to originate from the West Coast, similar gatherings are planned throughout the region to mark a milestone in the historic voyage.

NASA’s InSight lander, which began its journey to Mars aboard a United Launch Alliance-built Atlas V rocket that was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base on May 5, is predicted to touch down on the surface of the Red Planet just before noon Monday. Several watch parties have been scheduled around Lompoc and Santa Maria to mark the momentous occasion.

The landing, if successful, would be the first for an Earth-based spacecraft on Mars in six years. The last such landing was NASA’s Curiosity rover in 2012.

Landing on Mars is no sure thing, NASA pointed out in its informational materials ahead of the planned landing.

“Only about 40 percent of the missions ever sent to Mars — by any space agency — have been successful,” a U.S. space agency spokesperson said in a statement. “The U.S. is the only nation whose missions have survived a Mars landing. The thin atmosphere — just 1 percent of Earth’s — means that there’s little friction to slow down a spacecraft. Despite that, NASA has had a long and successful track record at Mars. Since 1965, it has flown by, orbited, landed on and roved across the surface of the Red Planet.”

The InSight lander, which is the first dedicated to studying the deep interior of Mars and the first to place a seismometer directly on the surface of another planet to detect quakes, is on track to fall onto a section of Mars known as the “Elysium Planitia” around 11:47 a.m. PST. Because it takes about eight minutes for light to travel from Mars to Earth, the landing signal isn’t expected back on Earth until about 11:54 a.m. at the earliest.

NASA is slated to stream video of the landing, and that broadcast will be among the attractions at the several local viewing parties.

Among the watch parties planned in Lompoc:

  • The Lompoc Public Library, 501 E. North Ave., is inviting community members to gather at the library from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. to watch the landing. It is expected that NASA materials will be made available during the event.
  • Explore Lompoc, a marketing organization that coordinated several of the local launch events for the start of the mission in May, will host a multiscreen landing party from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Hilton Garden Inn, 1201 North H St. Light snacks will be provided.

Two large events have also been planned in Santa Maria — at Hancock College and at the Discovery Museum.

Officials at Hancock are inviting community members to a free viewing party that will be held from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Marian Theatre on the school’s Santa Maria campus. Along with video of the landing, that event will also include experts who will be on hand to lead discussion and commentary.

Those experts will include Brian H. Day, from NASA’s Solar System Exploration Research Institute, and Hancock astronomy professor Vince Tobin.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for people to see and learn about a real flying saucer’s mission to Mars,” said Richard Mahon, academic dean at Hancock. “Decades of work have come down to this one feat and the college is excited to share this moment with the community.”

Space enthusiasts and families are also invited to a multifaceted viewing party scheduled for 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Santa Maria Valley Discovery Museum, 705 S. McClelland St.

At that party, the landing will be shown on the museum’s “Vandenberg Launch Experience” 90-inch screen. In addition to the viewing, children will be able to build "mini-landers," learn about shock absorption with a Jell-O experiment, and better understand the InSight’s mission by interacting with a hands-on seismograph.

“Thanks to our educational partnership with Vandenberg Air Force Base, we’re able to offer our community a front-row seat to the exciting world of space exploration,” Program Director Amy Blasco said. “We’re looking forward to witnessing aerospace history with our patrons.”

The InSight mission is planned to last one Martian year, plus 40 Martian days. That amounts to about two Earth years.

For information on how to view the landing online, visit https://mars.nasa.gov/insight/timeline/landing/watch-online/.

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Willis Jacobson covers the city of Lompoc for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @WJacobsonLR.

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