NASA’s InSight lander is about to start a new chapter in Mars exploration. The craft is set to touch down on the red planet Monday, armed to the teeth with scientific equipment ready to deepen humanity’s understanding of both Mars itself and other similar rocky planets, including our own.
The 687-day mission will study the interior of the planet by using three key instruments: a seismic experiment for interior structure, a heat probe, and a radio science instrument. The landing marks the culmination of a seven-month journey, where InSight whizzed across 301,223,981 miles at speeds of up to 6,200 mph. The craft is now preparing to enter the atmosphere, deploy a parachute and rockets, and hit the surface at 3 p.m. Eastern time. These final pre-landing moments are among the tensest of the mission.
“While most of the country was enjoying Thanksgiving with their family and friends, the InSight team was busy making the final preparations for Monday’s landing,” said Tom Hoffman of JPL, InSight’s project manager. “Landing on Mars is difficult and takes a lot of personal sacrifices, such as missing the traditional Thanksgiving, but making InSight successful is well worth the extraordinary effort.”
NASA InSight Lander: Mission Goals
This is the first mission overseen by NASA’s new administrator Jim Brindenstein. InSight differs from previous missions like the 2012 Curiosity mission due to its focus on the interior of the planet, looking at measurements like seismology, tectonics, temperature, and the planet’s formation.
InSight has three primary pieces of equipment:
- A dome-shaped Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure that will lay on the surface to study waves, harvesting 38 megabits of data per day. This is expected to tell scientists about the mantle, crust and core of the planet.
- A Heat Flow and Physical Properties Probe that burrows down around 16 feet to measure temperatures, deeper than any probe before. This will show how much heat is coming out of the planet and how that compares to the Earth. It’s set to produce 350 megabits of data through the entire mission.
- A Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment, a set of antennas on the top that measure how the lander moves over time. The goal is to understand how Mars’ North Pole wobbles as it orbits the sun. This will help scientists understand whether the planet’s core is liquid, and what else could be inside the core.
NASA InSight Lander: Landing Plan
NASA has started making the preparations for the final touchdown. At 4:47 a.m. Eastern time, engineers corrected the spacecraft for its final moments prior to touchdown. Around two hours prior to the final touchdown, the team may make some last-minute changes to the landing algorithm. Assistant branch head Jill Prince has referred to the final minutes before a Mars landing as the “six minutes of terror” as it’s the final moments where scientists find out whether their years of calculations have proved accurate.
The landing is set for 3 p.m. Eastern time. In these moments, the lander will move to a 12-degree angle at around 13,000 mph, before slowing down to 10,000 mph in two minutes. Once 10 miles above the surface, the craft will release its parachute, extend three legs, and remove the heat shield. It will ditch the parachute once it reaches one mile from the surface. The retro rockets will help cushion the final landing, but the craft will need to switch these off as soon as it lands to avoid tipping over.
If all goes to plan, InSight will land at Elysium Planitia, a flat plane near the equator around 373 miles from Curiosity’s landing spot Gale Crater.
NASA InSight Lander: How to Watch
NASA will be streaming the InSight landing from 10:30 a.m. Pacific time from the NASA TV or NASA.Gov/Live pages. Viewers can also follow along through the agency’s YouTube or UStream channels. Anyone that misses the event can re-watch the livestream through the YouTube and UStream pages.
Alternatively, viewers can attend one of the many in-person viewing parties around the world.