This afternoon, NASA will try to land its latest spacecraft – a vehicle called InSight, which will sit on the surface of the planet and hear about an earthquake over the next two years – on Mars. But, first, it must survive the horrible origin of the earth. NASA plans to use more spacecraft around Mars to confirm that InSight land is unchanged.
Once the arriving vessel hits the top of the Mars atmosphere, it will perform a complicated multipurpose landing routine that will last from six to seven minutes. During the first phase, InSight will get rid of the atmosphere by means of a thermal shield for protection, while the ambient air will strike the spacecraft, heats it to temperatures of 2,700 degrees Celsius. The atmosphere will considerably slow down the downhill, but InSight will need to deploy a supersonic parachute to slow down even further. Finally, the landing gear will burn boards, which will lower the vehicle to the ground.
All these steps should occur at the right time to allow InSight to gently touch the surface. If it works, the ice will slow down from speeds of more than 12,000 miles an hour to just 5 miles per hour before hitting the surface. If everything goes well, we should immediately have an early landing confirmation, but it will be a matter of hours until we know if the spacecraft is fully healthy and ready to start its mission.
During downhill, InSight will send data for each major step in the landing process using one of its less powerful panel antennas. Scientists will try to take these signals from Earth, but two nearby spacecraft will also be heard. These two probes are Marco spacecraft, which began with InSight in May and has since traveled to Mars. Marco probes are made of the type of standardized satellite known as the cube sub, which consists of 10-centimeters of cubes that can be arranged together. Cube Sats have become key tools for collecting data in orbit around the Earth, but MarCO satellites are the first to ever be sent in deep space.
Marco satellites travel alone to Mars, separated by InSight, but they need to reach the planet as it happens when landing. They will come within 2.175 miles of the planet, and when done, they will try to collect Ultra-High Frequency (UHF) signals that InSight sends for landing. Mark's pair will then decipher all that data and send the information to Earth. It can provide NASA with a real-time overview of how the InSight landing is going on. And they could even transfer an InSight picture once it's on the ground.
Technically, Marco's probes are considered experimental, so they may not function exactly as NASA hopes. If they are not able to decrypt the data sent by InSight during landing, NASA's knowledge of this event will be a little less reliable at first. Earth antennas can still collect signals sent by InSight, but without interpreting Marco's probes, they will not tell much to scientists.
"We have UHF signals coming directly to Earth, but they do not carry information because it's too long to be able to decipher any information from it," said Tom Hoffman, Project InSight Project Manager at NASA's Jet-Pogon Laboratory, tells On the edge. Most of all, NASA will be able to use these signals to determine if InSight has a large change in speed, such as when the parachute is deployed. But that's about it.
But Marko Sondi will not be the only spacecraft to follow the landing. The NASA Mars Observation Mars Orbiter, which is in orbit around Mars in 2006, will also collect all data from landing from overheads. But, unlike Marco Sondes, MRO will not return this information in real time. It will store the data it receives while the spacecraft falls off the horizon, cutting its view from Earth. Once the MRO returns around Mars – about three hours later – then it will send all the data they have collected on our planet.
Once InSight is on the ground, it will send a quick signal that it is OK, and then a much more powerful antenna will be included. About seven minutes after landing, this antenna will send a large signal to Earth, confirming that InSight has destroyed one piece. "We will be really happy when we hear it," says Hoffman.
But the InSight team will not be completely celebrating at that moment. After landing, there will still be one last big step for InSight to fulfill: opens its solar panels. These circular arrays are crucial for powering the lander while on Mars, and if they do not deploy correctly, InSight can not fulfill its mission. Unfortunately, scientists from NASA will have to wait a few hours before getting confirmation that solar panels are deployed. Shortly after Earth on Earth, the spacecraft will move beyond the Earth's view, and it will not be able to send signals directly to our planet for a long time. Fortunately, Mars Odyssey, another space ship that orbits Mars around 2001, will go over the head to see if the panels were deployed. It will transmit that key information on Earth about five and a half hours after the landing.
"Honestly, I will not be completely relaxed until we know for certain that we are using the solar arrays," says Hoffman.
InSight's landing is scheduled to take place just before 15:00 ET. However, NASA will not receive the word for landing until eight minutes have elapsed. Thanks to the current distance between the Earth and Mars, a light signal lasts 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 the Inspire post-landing around 3:01 ET.
NASA plans to provide live landing coverage starting at 2:00 ET. Check back to see if the space agency has pulled out another successful touchdown.