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InSight landing
An artist’s conception shows NASA’s Mars InSight firing its thrusters for landing. (NASA / JPL-Caltech Illustration)

Today’s the day for the Mars InSight lander’s touchdown on the Red Planet, and NASA is pulling out all the stops to let us in on the action.

This is the first Mars landing to take place since the Curiosity rover was lowered onto the rocky terrain of Gusev Crater more than six years ago. And in the final hours of InSight’s nearly seven-month, 300 million-mile-cruise, the two robots are having quite a conversation on Twitter. (There’s even an in-joke over “sol,” which is NASA’s term for a Martian day.)

InSight’s seven-minute descent through the thin Martian atmosphere, set for just before noon PT today, might not be quite as nail-biting as Curiosity’s.

Six years ago, Curiosity’s arrival marked the first-ever use of an unconventional, rocket-powered sky crane system that lowered the 1-ton rover to the surface. This time around, InSight will rely on a heat shield, a parachute and a 12-thruster system developed by Aerojet Rocketdyne in Redmond, Wash. It’s similar to the system that worked well in 2008 for NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander (which was built on the same basic design used for InSight).

InSight is targeting a region known as Elysium Planitia, which is basically Latin for “heavenly plain.”

Look back at the launch: Fog and flames mark the start of InSight’s journey

“Indeed it is a heavenly plain, and it is very plain, but it is actually perfect,” InSight project manager Tom Hoffman said, “It’s safe, it’s a great place not only to land, it’s a great place to do the science that we want to do. … I’m very hopeful that we have even less rocks, it’s even more sandy and even more, dare I say, boring.”

The descent will be monitored by two nanosatellites known as MarCO-A and MarCO-B. If all goes according to plan, the MarCO CubeSats will relay word of the landing back to Earth as they fly past the planet at an altitude of more than 2,000 miles. If they miss the connection, it could be hours before InSight’s fate is known, based on telemetry from NASA’s Mars orbiters.

InSight’s main mission is to gather data about Mars’ interior, which is why Hoffman isn’t bothered by the boring terrain. The lander has three main scientific instruments: the shielded seismometer that Curiosity tweeted about, a “mole” that’s designed to burrow down as far as 15 feet and take Mars’ temperature below ground, and a radio transponder that can make precise measurements of Mars’ movements.

All those readings of Mars’ seismic activity, internal heat flow and planetary rotation should help scientists get a better fix on the size and composition of Mars’ core — which, in turn, could reveal much about how the planet was formed. (“InSight” is actually a tortured acronym that stands for “Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport.”)

NASA’s live video coverage of today’s landing begins at 11 a.m. PT, leading up to the expected climax just before noon. There’ll be a post-landing news conference at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, set for no earlier than 2 p.m. PT.

Video will be streamed online via NASA TV and YouTube, plus JPL’s YouTube channel and Ustream channel. NASA’s FacebookTwitter and Periscope social-media channels will get in on the party as well.

In Seattle, the Pacific Science Center is hosting a daylong celebration and theater-style live coverage of mission activities — while at the Museum of Flight, video coverage of the landing will be put up on the big screen in the Charles Simonyi Space Gallery, with live commentary from space curator Geoff Nunn.

You can expect to see a lot of interviews and background videos during the early part of the coverage, leading up to shots of worried engineers milling around at JPL’s Mission Control as the appointed time nears. And if the landing is successful, you can expect to see those engineers acting like the grandsons who showed up for Hoffman’s Thanksgiving dinner a few days ago.

“Boy, when they get excited, they run around like crazy men, raising their hands, yelling, screaming, carrying on,” Hoffman told reporters. “And I have to tell you, inside of me right now, I’m just about that same way. I’m going to control myself as well as I can until we get the first notification of successful landing. But just to warn anybody who’s sitting near me, after that, I’m going to unleash my inner 4-year-old.”

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