This afternoon, NASA will attempt to land its last spacecraft, a vehicle called InSight that will sit on the surface of the planet and listen to earthquakes for the next two years, on Mars. But first, you must survive a heartbreaking descent to the ground. NASA plans to use multiple spacecraft around Mars to confirm that InSight lands intact.
Once the landing module reaches the top of the atmosphere of Mars, it will perform a complicated multi-step landing routine that will last between six and seven minutes. During the first phase, InSight will fall freely through the atmosphere using a heat shield for protection while the surrounding air crashes into the ship, heating it to temperatures of 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit. The atmosphere will significantly slow down the lander, but InSight will have to deploy a supersonic parachute to further reduce the speed. Eventually, the lander will turn on the thrusters on board, which will lower the vehicle to the ground.
All these steps must be done at the right time to allow InSight to gently touch the surface. If it works, the lander will decrease from a speed of more than 12,000 miles per hour to only about 5 miles per hour before it reaches the surface. If all goes well, we should have an early confirmation of the landing immediately, but it will be a matter of hours until we know if the ship is completely healthy and ready to begin its mission.
During the descent, InSight will send data on each important step of its landing process using one of its less powerful on-board antennas. Scientists will try to capture these signals from Earth, but two nearby ships will also be listening. Those two probes are the MarCO spacecraft, which launched with InSight in May and has been traveling to Mars ever since. The MarCO probes are made from a standardized satellite type known as Cube Sat, which consists of 10-centimeter cubes that can be stacked together. Cube Sats have become crucial tools for collecting data in orbit around the Earth, but MarCO satellites are the first to be sent into deep space.
The MarCO satellites have been traveling on their own to Mars, separated from InSight, but they should reach the planet just as the landing occurs. They will come to 2,175 miles of the planet and, when they do, they will try to collect the ultra high frequency (UHF) signals that InSight sends on its landing. The MarCO pair then deciphers all that data and sends the information to Earth. That could provide NASA with a real-time summary of how the InSight landing is going. And they could even transmit an image of InSight once it's on the ground.
Technically, MarCO probes are considered experimental, so they may not work exactly as expected by NASA. If they can not decipher the data that InSight sends during the landing, NASA's knowledge of the event will be a little less reliable at first. Antennas on Earth can still pick up signals sent by InSight, but without the interpretation of MarCO probes, they will not tell scientists much.
"We have the UHF signals that arrive directly at the Earth, but they do not transmit information because it is too long to decipher any information," Tom Hoffman, InSight project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion. Laboratory says The edge. At the most, NASA will be able to use these signals to determine if InSight experiences a large change in speed, such as when the parachute is deployed. But that's it.
However, MarCO probes will not be the only spacecraft that observe the landing. NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been in orbit around Mars since 2006, will also collect all the landing data from above. But unlike the MarCO probes, MRO will not send that information in real time. It stores the data it receives when the spacecraft falls beyond the horizon, cutting off its view of the Earth. Once MRO returns to Mars, about three hours later, it will send all the collected data to our planet.
Once InSight is on the ground, it will send a quick signal that says it's OK and then a much more powerful antenna will light up. Approximately seven minutes after landing, that antenna will send a large signal to Earth, confirming that InSight did it in one piece. "We're going to be really happy when we hear that," says Hoffman.
But the InSight team will not be celebrating fully at that time. After landing, there will still be one last big step for InSight to do: deploy its solar panels. These circular arrays are crucial to power the lander while on Mars, and if they are not implemented correctly, InSight can not fulfill its mission. Unfortunately, NASA scientists will have to wait a few hours before receiving confirmation that the solar panels have been deployed. Shortly after InSight lands, the spacecraft will move out of sight of Earth and will not be able to send signals directly to our planet for a while. Fortunately, Mars Odyssey, another spacecraft that has been orbiting Mars since 2001, will go over it to see if the panels have been deployed. It will transmit that crucial information to Earth approximately five and a half hours after landing.
"Frankly, I'm not going to be completely relaxed until we're sure we have solar panels in place," says Hoffman.
The InSight landing is scheduled to take place just before 3PM ET. However, NASA will not receive information about the landing until eight minutes after it actually occurs. Thanks to the current distance between Earth and Mars, a light signal takes eight minutes and seven seconds to travel between the two planets. But if everything goes according to plan, NASA should get that extra strong signal from InSight after landing around 3:01 PM ET.
NASA plans to provide live coverage of the landing starting at 2PM ET. Check again to see if the space agency makes another successful Martian contact.