NASA’s InSight lander will be focus of worldwide watch parties


Agency to share white-knuckle moments before, during and after the vehicle's descent to Mars

NASA has lined up social media apps, live camera feeds and expert commentators to let the public experience the same “seven minutes of terror” that scientists and contractors will endure as the agency’s billion-dollar InSight lander undertakes its entry, descent and landing to the surface of Mars.

Close to 100 public viewing parties are planned at museums, congressional buildings, libraries and planetariums in the U.S. and abroad at equivalent locations in countries where some of the InSight lander’s scientific instruments were made. NASA considers several of the U.S. events “major viewing sites,” including New York’s Times Square.

InSight is scheduled to touch down at 2:54 p.m. Eastern time Nov. 26, with live coverage starting at 2 p.m. on NASA Television’s public channel and streamed online, including a video feed with mission audio from the control room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

If the landing goes as planned — viewers will know by the cheers erupting at JPL — the lander will probe the interior characteristics of Mars with instruments to sense vibration, heat transfer and irregularities in the planet’s rotation.

The first photo of the surface could come back as soon as 10 minutes after landing, provided that the two cubesats that trailed InSight en route to the planet manage to relay data from the entry, descent, and landing. No one is promising that the Mars Cube One cubesats will work as planned, because they are the first of their kind in deep space and they are a technology demonstration. If no data comes back from them, the first photo from InSight’s fish-eye camera will arrive back to Earth via the Odyssey orbiter several hours later, at about 8:30 p.m. Eastern.

Landing on Mars is challenging, partly due to the planet’s thin atmosphere. “We call it the ‘seven minutes of terror’ because we have to go from a speed of Mach 25 to zero on the surface in seven minutes from atmospheric interface,” NASA Associate Administrator Steve Jurczyk, the agency’s top civil servant, told a group of small-business executives earlier this month. “I’ve been down at JPL — Jet Propulsion Lab — for two landings, and it’s kind of nerve-wracking because there’s an eight-minute delay in comm from the planet. So you’re on the surface and you won’t know for eight minutes whether you’ve survived or you haven’t survived. Once you get that signal, at that touchdown, sensors down, you get those first pictures — it’s like nervous celebrating in the control room.”

NASA has a lot planned before then. Social media Q-and-As with InSight team members start Sunday. A 360-degree video camera array will monitor the control room at JPL, which manages the program and provides navigational tracking, and NASA TV will broadcast commentaries from the JPL campus in Pasadena, leading up to the landing. Coverage will also go out to landing events and parties happening elsewhere, such as Lockheed Martin Space Systems’ Littleton, Colorado, facility where InSight was built and where the spacecraft operations team will send out InSight’s final command for entry, descent and landing.

Meanwhile, the drama will start unfolding 146 million kilometers from Earth, when InSight turns to point its heat shield toward the Martian atmosphere. At 11.2 kilometers in altitude, a parachute will unfold. Next, the heat shield will jettison, the lander’s legs will deploy, and ground-sensing radar will turn on. The lander will separate from its protective shell, and 12 thrusters will fire to slow the final descent.

Provided InSight reaches the surface safely, it will send a message confirming touchdown. A second message, about eight minutes later, will include confirmation of InSight’s well-being.  An improvement over Curiosity is the full-color camera on InSight’s robotic arm that scientists will be able to point 360 degrees — albeit to survey one of the flattest places on the planet, the Elysium Planitia landing site.

Then, about 10 weeks later, it will be time to get to work. Scientists believe Earth and Mars formed from the same materials in the early solar system, but they don’t know why the planets have turned out so differently.

The formal name Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport refers to the techniques by which InSight will gather data from below Mars’ surface.

A probe inserted as deep as 3 meters below the surface will gauge heat transport and dissipation from the planet’s interior.

InSight’s 1.8-meter robotic arm will set a seismometer directly on the ground to sense vibrations from “marsquakes” much deeper within.

Researchers will regularly reference the stationary lander’s radio signal to determine its precise location relative to Earth. This will help track wobbles in Mars’ rotation around its axis, which the planet’s internal conditions can affect.

“And we’ll do a little prospecting to see if there are underground resources that we might utilize — a little bit of resource exploration that we might be able to do with InSight,” Jurczyk said.

One place the U.S. can still consider itself ahead in the space race is the surface of Mars.

“We’re actually the only nation that’s landed a payload on Mars that’s successfully operated after it landed. Others have landed, but kind of a little bit of a hard landing,” said Jurczyk, possibly referring to the ExoMars lander, a joint project of the European Space Agency and Roscosmos, which crashed in 2016.

“So, tune in for the next landing on Nov. 26.”

The Lockheed Martin photo at top shows NASA’s InSight lander during a test of its solar arrays at Lockheed Martin’s clean room in Littleton, Colorado.

Related Topics

Unmanned Spacecraft

“We call it the ‘seven minutes of terror’ because we have to go from a speed of Mach 25 to zero on the surface in seven minutes from atmospheric interface.”

NASA Associate Administrator Steve Jurczyk

NASA’s InSight lander will be focus of worldwide watch parties