NASA InSight Mars landing live broadcast: watch engineers track the harrowing descent


This afternoon, NASA will attempt to land its latest spacecraft – a vehicle called InSight, which will be on the surface of the planet and will hear earthquakes in the next two years – on Mars. But first, it must survive an agonizing descent to the ground. NASA plans to use several spacecraft around Mars to confirm that InSight is intact.

Once the lander reaches the top of Mars's atmosphere, it will perform a complicated multi-stage landing routine, which 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 strikes the spacecraft, warming it to temperatures of 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit. The atmosphere will significantly reduce the lander, but InSight will need to deploy a supersonic parachute to decelerate further. Eventually, the probe will light the propellers on board, which will reduce the vehicle to the ground.

All of these steps need to happen at the right time to allow InSight to gently touch the surface. If it works, the probe will slow 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 must have immediate confirmation of the landing immediately, but it will be a matter of hours before we know if the spacecraft is fully healthy and ready to begin its mission.

During the descent, InSight will send data about each main step of your landing process using one of your less powerful onboard antennas. Scientists will try to capture these signals from Earth, but two nearby spacecrafts will also be attentive. These two spacecraft are the MarCO spacecraft, which was launched with InSight in May and has traveled to Mars since then. MarCO probes are made from a standard satellite type known as Cube Sat, which consists of 10cm cubes that can be stacked together. Sats Cube have become crucial tools for collecting data in orbit around the Earth, but MarCO satellites are the first to be sent into deep space.

MarCO satellites have traveled on their own to Mars, separated from InSight, but must arrive on the planet exactly when the landing takes place. They will reach 2,174 km from the planet, and when they do, they will try to collect the UHF signals that InSight sends over the landing. The MarCO pair will decrypt all the data and send the information back to Earth. This could give NASA a real-time summary of how the InSight landing is going. And they may even be able to convey an image of InSight when it's on the ground.

Technically, MarCO probes are considered experimental, so they may not work exactly as NASA expects. If they can not decipher the data that InSight sends during landing, NASA's knowledge of the event will be a little less reliable at first. Earth's antennas can still pick up the signals that InSight sends, but without the interpretation of the MarCO probes, they do not tell scientists much.

"We have the UHF signals that are coming directly to Earth, but they do not carry any information because it's too long to actually decipher any information," said Tom Hoffman, InSight project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion. Laboratory account The Verge. At most, NASA can use these signals to determine if InSight experiences a major change in velocity, such as when the parachute is deployed. But that's it.

The MarCO spacecraft will not be the only spacecraft to observe the landing. NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been in orbit around Mars since 2006, will also gather all landing data. But unlike Marco's probes, MRO does not send this information in real time. It will store the data it receives as the spacecraft falls beyond the horizon, cutting off its view of the Earth. Once the MRO returns around Mars – about three hours later – it will send all the collected data back to our planet.

When the InSight is on the ground, it will send a quick signal saying that everything is fine and then connect a much more powerful antenna. About seven minutes after landing, this antenna will send a large signal to Earth, confirming that InSight has reduced it in one piece. "We'll be very happy when we hear this," says Hoffman.

But the InSight team will not be celebrating fully at that time. After the landing, there will still be one last big step for InSight to realize: unfurling its solar panels. These circular arrays are crucial to power the probe while it is on Mars, and if it is not deployed correctly, InSight will not be able to fulfill its mission. Unfortunately, NASA scientists will have to wait a few hours before getting confirmation that the solar panels have been deployed. Soon after InSight lands, the spacecraft will be out of sight of Earth and will not be able to send signals directly to the planet for a while. Fortunately, Mars Odyssey, another spacecraft that orbits Mars since 2001, will go over to see if the panels have been deployed. It will transmit this crucial information to Earth about five and a half hours after landing.

"Frankly, I will not be completely relaxed until we are sure we have the solar arrays installed," says Hoffman.

The InSight landing is scheduled to occur before 15:00 ET. However, NASA will not receive news of the landing until eight minutes after it actually happens. 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 all goes according to plan, NASA should receive this extra strong signal from InSight after landing at around 3:01 PM ET.

NASA plans to provide live landing coverage from 2:00 pm ET. Check back to see if the space agency pulls out another successful Martian touchdown.


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