Video Shows What Should Happen During the InSight Mars Landing Today
NASA’s InSight Mars lander is scheduled to touch down on the red planet on Monday afternoon, but its arrival will be six minutes of pure terror. Now, after a six-month journey from Earth, which went according to plan, InSight’s success comes down to its descent onto Elysium Planitia, a huge flat plain near the Martian equator. Around 3 p.m. Eastern, InSight will enter the atmosphere of Mars, which is when the fun begins. As harsh as the weather is on the ground, getting there will be a seriously wild ride.
Thanks to a pair of briefcase-sized spacecraft called Mars Cube One (known also as CubeSats) that tagged along on InSight’s rocket, NASA and anyone who’s interested can watch the landing from Earth.
Want to tune in yourself? Here’s all the ways you can watch InSight’s landing.
InSight’s harrowing descent will occur in four distinct stages, each of which must go exactly as planned for the landing to succeed.
The lander will separate from the cruise stage before entering the atmosphere. This is when the six minutes of terror — as Jill Prince, manager of NASA’s Engineering and Safety Center described it — begins. InSight will orient itself at a 12-degree angle, heat-shield first, and then enter the atmosphere at a breakneck 13,000 miles per hour. As it free falls, the lander will rapidly slow to 1,000 miles per hour over the course of two minutes. During this time, its heat shield will endure temperatures over 1,000 degrees Celsius — hot enough to melt steel.
Pull the Chute!
Once InSight is about 10 miles above the planet’s surface, it will ditch the burnt-up heat shield and deploy a parachute to help it slow further. This is when the craft will also deploy its three landing legs that will support the lander throughout its entire mission.
Using radar, InSight will determine its orientation and distance from the ground, ejecting the back shell and parachute about a mile from the surface.
After ditching the parachute, InSight will take another short free-fall again. That’s when the grand finale begins.
InSight’s retro thrusters will guide it softly to the ground at about five miles per hour. They’ll shut off as soon as it lands to prevent the lander from knocking itself over. At this point, InSight will deploy its solar panels to ensure that it has a steady supply of electrical power to conduct its experiments on Mars’ subsurface.
What Could Go Wrong?
Unsurprisingly, there are a lot of things that could go wrong during InSight’s landing. The heat shield could fail, exposing the lander’s sensitive bits to extreme temperatures. The parachutes could fail, leaving the lander in free-fall for too long — if this happens, the retro thrusters probably couldn’t slow it down enough. The radar could fail, leaving InSight unable to accurately calculate its final approach. The retro thrusters could fail, crashing InSight into the ground. The legs could fail.
In short, despite the lessons NASA has learned over decades of sending landers to Mars, no landing is guaranteed. Out of 18 attempted landings on Mars or its larger moon Phobos, only seven have survived to send images back to Earth.
Tune in at 3 p.m. Eastern for all the nail-biting action.
Additional reporting by Tiffany Jeung.