Mars, perhaps the only planet in the universe populated solely by robots, is about to gain a new resident — that is, if everything goes the way it’s supposed to today.
Watch the landing live right here. The stream is scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. Eastern time.
At 3 p.m. EST, NASA’s InSight lander is scheduled to touch down on the Red Planet’s Elysium Planitia — a short 91 million miles away from its starting point at Vandenberg Air Force Base in southern California this past May. Once there, it will relay scientific data regarding the Martian planet’s interior via a pair of cube-satellites that made the trip alongside InSight — the first cube sats ever to survive such a lengthy trip through deep space.
“Just by surviving the trip so far, the two MarCO satellites have made a giant leap for CubeSats,” said Anne Marinan, a MarCO systems engineer based at JPL. “And now we are gearing up for the MarCOs’ next test — serving as a possible model for a new kind of interplanetary communications relay.”
InSight (which is actually a sort-of acronym for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) will deploy a seismometer, heat probe, and an array of other sensors all aimed at gaining a better understanding of the planet’s internal structure and rotation. NASA’s goal is to use Mars to offer an insight (no pun intended) into the early evolution of rocky planets in our solar system. By gaining a better understanding of how Mars formed, scientists believe they’ll be able to make stronger assertions regarding the formation of all the rocky bodies in our solar system — including the planet we live on.
Of course, before it can do that, InSight has to survive the landing. Mars is so far away that communications between NASA and the InSight lander have a seven minute or longer delay each way in communications. Even traveling at the speed of light, that’s how long it takes for radio signals to cover the vast expanse of space between us and Mars. As a result, NASA’s team will know when the lander was supposed to touch down on Mars, but will need to wait that seven excruciating minutes before finding out if it survived the fall or not.
“There’s a reason engineers call landing on Mars ‘seven minutes of terror,'” said Rob Grover, InSight’s entry, descent and landing (EDL) lead, based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
“We can’t joystick the landing, so we have to rely on the commands we pre-program into the spacecraft. We’ve spent years testing our plans, learning from other Mars landings and studying all the conditions Mars can throw at us. And we’re going to stay vigilant until InSight settles into its home in the Elysium Planitia region.”