Tense scenes are expected as the InSight spacecraft attempts to parachute down to the surface of the Red Planet to study "Marsquakes."

By Jamie Carter
November 26, 2018
Courtesy of NASA

Applause, laughter, hollering. You'll hear all that today from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Mission Control in Pasadena, California if its InSight spacecraft successfully touches down on Mars. Due to reach the Red Planet's surface just before 11:53 a.m. PST/2:43 p.m. EST today, InSight will attempt to land using a parachute and retrorockets. Just six minutes before it attempts a landing, it will have been traveling at 14,100 mph.

This is going to be tense.

How difficult is it to land on Mars?

Almost half of the attempts to land on Mars fail. Although 70+ robotic spacecraft, orbiters, landers, and rovers have made the trip to Mars, 40 percent of them have been lost during landing. Engineers will be hoping there won't be a dust storm going on when InSight comes in to land, though the real problem is speed. Having launched on May 5, 2018 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California as it enters the atmosphere of Mars, InSight will be traveling at 14,100 mph. It's hoped that a supersonic parachute, 12 descent engines, and some shock-absorbing legs will slow it down enough for a safe landing. However, a high-speed crash remains a risk.

How to live-stream Insight's landing on Mars

You can watch InSight’s attempt to land on Mars live on NASA TV. On Monday, Nov. 26, NASA TV will broadcast the landing from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. PST/2 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. EST. There will then be a post-landing news briefing no earlier than 2 p.m. PST/5 p.m. EST. You can also watch the landing on YouTube and UStream.

How will NASA know when InSight lands safely?

Bringing live coverage from 91 million miles away will not be easy. NASA will use radio telescopes in Green Bank, West Virginia and also in Germany to listen out for radio signals from InSight. The entry, descent, and landing phases will each emit a slightly different radio frequency, enabling engineers to track InSight's progress. InSight will also send a "tone beacon" when it touches down on Mars, and again seven minutes later, but much more loudly. It’s hoped that the radio telescopes will pick up those signals, though NASA also has a couple of CubeSats orbiting Mars that could help relay the signals.

Where will InSight land on Mars?

The area where InSight is landing is called Elysium Planitia, a particularly flat area of Mars where hazardous loose rocks are absent. Just north of its equator, it's also a great place for InSight's solar panels to generate power for long periods. However, dust storms are common in this area. Still, this second largest volcanic region on Mars is an ideal place for InSight to land because of the science it is designed to perform. Unlike NASA's famous rovers Curiosity and Opportunity, InSight will remain in the exact place it lands.

Courtesy of NASA

What will InSight do on Mars?

InSight is designed to detect Marsquakes. Built by Lockheed Martin Space in Denver, InSight will measure the frequency and intensity of Marsquakes, with mission scientists expecting to see between 12 and 100 Marsquakes during the two-year mission. The seismic data collected by InSight will also be used to figure how Mars was formed, and reveal much about its internal structure, which geologists know very little about. It will also slam a self-hammering heat flow probe about 16 feet into the Martian surface to take the planet's temperature. The mission will last for one Martian year (the time it takes for Mars to complete one orbit of the sun), which equates to 26 Earth months.

Is Curiosity still on Mars?

Although NASA's Curiosity rover only had a two-year mission when it landed on Mars in 2012, the robot has since traveled about 12 miles around Gale Crater, and is still conducting science. However, NASA's Opportunity rover, which landed in 2004, looks to have finished its mission after engineers lost contact with it in August 2018.

Are there any other missions to Mars planned?

Next up is NASA's Mars 2020 rover, which is modeled on Curiosity and planned to launch in summer 2021 for a February 2021 landing. It will use a robotic arm, and a drill, to collect rocks and soil samples from Jezero Crater just north of the Martian equator, and if it finds anything interesting, it will leave it in a box for a possible future "sample return" mission, possibly by humans. Mars 2020 will also look for water, test oxygen-producing tech, and collect data on weather, wind, radiation, and dust.

After all, if we are going to send humans to Mars, we're going to need to know much more about what its surface is like ... and how bad those Marsquakes are.

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