NASA’s InSight mission to Mars is just days away from reaching its destination. On Monday, November 26, the InSight lander will blaze through the atmosphere of the red planet and land on the surface. Now, the NASA team is making final preparations for the landing.
One of the many challenges of sending a craft to Mars is that engineers back on Earth can’t control the craft in real time. They have to rely on pre-programed software to guide the craft and wait for data to come back from other nearby craft to see if the lander has made it through the atmosphere to its destination. The craft will enter the top of the Martian atmosphere at a breakneck 12,300 mph (19,800 kph) before slowing down to 5 mph (8 kph) before landing on the surface.
According to NASA, the landing has been planned out down to the minute:
- “11:40 a.m. PST — Separation from the cruise stage that carried the mission to Mars
- 11:41 a.m. PST — Turn to orient the spacecraft properly for atmospheric entry
- 11:47 a.m. PST — Atmospheric entry at about 12,300 mph (19,800 kph), beginning the entry, descent and landing phase
- 11:49 a.m. PST — Peak heating of the protective heat shield reaches about 2,700°F (about 1,500°C)
- 15 seconds later — Peak deceleration, with the intense heating causing possible temporary dropouts in radio signals
- 11:51 a.m. PST — Parachute deployment
- 15 seconds later — Separation from the heat shield
- 10 seconds later — Deployment of the lander’s three legs
- 11:52 a.m. PST — Activation of the radar that will sense the distance to the ground
- 11:53 a.m. PST — First acquisition of the radar signal
- 20 seconds later — Separation from the back shell and parachute
- 0.5 second later — The retrorockets, or descent engines, begin firing
- 2.5 seconds later — Start of the “gravity turn” to get the lander into the proper orientation for landing
- 22 seconds later — InSight begins slowing to a constant velocity (from 17 mph to a constant 5 mph, or from 27 kph to 8 kph) for its soft landing
- 11:54 a.m. PST — Expected touchdown on the surface of Mars
- 12:01 p.m. PST — “Beep” from InSight’s X-band radio directly back to Earth, indicating InSight is alive and functioning on the surface of Mars”
If you want to watch along to see if the InSight mission hits these milestones, the landing will be streamed live on NASA’s YouTube channel and in other locations. For information about when and how to watch the landing plus a pre-landing briefing and an engineering overview, have a look at NASA’s watch online page.