This is a wonderful simulation of today’s landing. I can’t help but get all emotional watching it. Keep these images in mind when InSight is about to touch down on the Red Planet this afternoon.
(UPDATED below) Today at about 2 p.m. Central Time (3 p.m. Eastern; 1 p.m. Mountain and noon Pacific), NASA’s InSight lander is scheduled to touch down in Elysium Planitia on Mars. The landing sight is a flat, smooth plain free of rocks or other landforms that might pose a hazard to the probe. The region’s low elevation also means thicker air (more atmosphere) for a safer landing. Located 4.5° north of the equator, InSight won’t be far from the Curiosity rover 373 miles (600 km) to the south in Gale Crater.
You can follow the landing on Twitter at @NASA and @NASAInSight for #MarsLanding news. News briefings and launch commentary will be streamed on NASA TV, YouTube.com/NASAJPL/live and Ustream.tv/NASAJPL. Live landing commentary runs from 1-2:30 p.m. Central Time. It will take about six minutes for InSight to land.
The lander’s name neatly describes the mission’s purpose: probe below the surface of Mars using temperature sensors and a seismometer to provide insight into how Mars formed and by extension, how all the other terrestrial planets formed. Once the dust from landing settles in about 15 minutes, the solar array motors warm up and and unfurl the solar panels. Solar cells will provide the power to run the probe’s instruments during its expected mission lifetime of 728 days or nearly 2 years.
Next, the lander will take a test wide-angle photo then power down into “sleep mode” for the cold night ahead. Over the next few weeks, the science instruments will be deployed as data-gathering gets underway. For a more in-depth timeline on surface operations, click here.
Mars is presently 90.4 million miles from Earth, so it takes a radio signal traveling at the speed of light 8 minutes to arrive at mission control. As the InSight lander descends into Mars’ atmosphere, it will broadcast simple radio signals called “tones” back to Earth. Because the tones shift in frequency depending on the probe’s descent into the atmosphere, engineers will be able to interpret key events in the landing sequence such as when the parachute opens and the lander suddenly slows down.
Two briefcase-sized spacecraft are flying behind InSight and will attempt to relay its signals to Earth. These mini-satellites called CubeSats will transmit the whole story as the landing unfolds including an image from InSight of the Martian surface right after the lander touches down. Exciting!