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Mars Insight lander
An artist’s conception shows the Mars Insight lander on the Red Planet’s surface, with its seismometer deployed at left and its heat-measuring “mole” deployed at right. (NASA / JPL-Caltech Illustration)

After a 300 million-mile, six-month interplanetary cruise, NASA’s Mars InSight robotic lander is heading for a plain-vanilla arrival at the Red Planet on Monday — and the team behind the mission couldn’t be more pleased.

“We’re expecting to have a very plain day on Mars for the landing, and we’re very happy about that,” said Rob Grover, the engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who’s in charge of Mars InSight’s entry, descent and landing.

That’s not only because the weather is relatively clear, but also because Mars InSight is on track to land in a no-drama region of Mars known as Elysium Planitia, which is Latin for  “Paradise Plain.”

“It may not look like paradise, but it is very flat. … It’s an excellent place for landing,” Grover said today. “As landing engineers, we really like this landing site.”

Grover and other InSight team members provided a preview of the landing today at JPL in Pasadena, Calif. The mission’s name is actually an acronym of sorts, standing for “INterior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport.” The lander’s instruments are designed to provide unprecedented data about the Red Planet’s inner structure, seismic activity and heat flow from the interior.

Pasadena may be the earthly epicenter for the $850 million mission, but NASA has upped its game for fans who want to follow the action remotely. The space agency has set up an online guide that positively bristles with animations, infographics, backgrounders and an interactive map pointing to live events that are keyed to the landing.

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.

NASA’s coverage begins at 11 a.m. PT Monday, with touchdown expected at around noon PT and a post-landing conference 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 Facebook, Twitter and Periscope social-media channels will get in on the party as well.

What will viewers see?

NASA will provide a play-by-play account of the spacecraft’s approach, leading up to a crucial plunge that lasts nearly seven minutes. When the lander hits the Martian atmosphere, protected by its heat shield, it’ll be traveling more than 12,000 mph and heating up to temperatures as high as 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit.

In the latter phases of the descent, the probe’s parachute will pop open, the heat shield will pop off, the landing legs will spring into place and 12 descent thrusters (produced by Aerojet Rocketdyne’s team in Redmond, Wash.) will fire up to ease the lander down onto Elysium Planitia.

The descent will be monitored by two suitcase-sized spacecraft that have been flying in formation near the InSight lander since they were all launched on the same rocket in May. The MarCO probes aren’t designed to land on Mars themselves. Rather, they’re equipped with communication equipment to relay data about InSight’s descent back to Earth.

Anne Marinan with MarCO mockup
JPL engineer Anne Marinan shows off a full-scale mockup of the MarCO flyby spacecraft with its communication antenna and solar panels deployed. MarCO stands for “Mars Cube One,” in recognition of its status as the first breed of interplanetary CubeSats. (NASA via YouTube)

NASA doesn’t strictly need MarCO-A and MarCO-B to work for mission success. MarCO’s main job is to test miniaturized CubeSat technologies that could become part of the routine for future robotic exploration missions. After flying past Mars, the twin solar-powered spacecraft will continue into deep space and could be available for a follow-up mission that’s yet to be determined.

InSight’s first hours of activity will be tracked by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Mars Odyssey orbiter as well. But because of the orbiters’ positions with respect to Earth, it could be more than five hours before ground controllers hear whether InSight has opened its two sets of solar arrays. That’s a key requirement for mission success. If InSight doesn’t get its power-generating system working, its batteries would last “not much more than one Mars day,” said Tom Hoffman, InSight project manager at JPL.

What will scientists get?

The first picture from InSight is set to be taken by the robotic probe’s Instrument Context Camera, which can capture a roughly 120-degree field of view of the lander’s surroundings. But such pictures are likely to be as plain as a plain can be.

Over the course of InSight’s primary mission, which is due to last a full Martian year or a little less than two Earth years, the most important findings are expected to come from the lander’s three main scientific instruments.

A radio science instrument will receive signals from Earth and send them back again, producing fluctuations that scientists can use to track the position of the lander precisely in space.

“In particular, we’re tracking the north pole of the planet and watching it wobble as the planet rotates,” InSight principal investigator Bruce Banerdt said. “The wobble of that north pole is tied to the interaction between the planet and its core.”

Close analysis of the readings can tell scientists how big Mars’ core is, and what it’s made out of.

“That’s very critical in terms of understanding the history of the planet,” Banerdt said. Scientists believe that Mars once had an environment more like Earth’s, but lost most of its atmosphere and water due to a complex process that involved the rapid cooldown of its core.

InSight’s robotic arm will set down another instrument, known as the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure, or SEIS. It’s a seismometer that can detect perturbations in the Martian crust with incredible precision. “Depending on exactly how you define it, it’s about half the radius of a hydrogen atom,” Banerdt said.

SEIS is so delicate that it has to be contained in a vacuum chamber and shielded from Mars’ whisper-thin winds. Back in 2015, problems with the vacuum seal forced NASA to postpone InSight’s launch from 2016 to this year. But that delay’s nothing compared to how long JPL’s Sue Smrekar, deputy principal investigator for the InSight mission, has been looking forward to getting the seismic data.

“I personally have been waiting for this information for decades,” she said.

The readings should reveal what kinds of seismic activity take place on Mars, how often earthquakes occur, and even how often and how forcefully meteors hit Mars. That kind of information could be useful to future Mars explorers.

The third instrument is the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Probe or HP3 (“HP-cubed”), which is designed to take Mars’ internal temperature. HP3 is a “mole” that hammers its way down as far as 15 feet beneath the surface to see how heat is transferred from Mars’ depths to the surface. That’s an important question, because if there’s any life left on Mars, it’s likely to lurk beneath the surface where there’s a better chance of having access to warmth and liquid water.

Once the instruments are deployed, NASA will be delivering regular snapshots of Mars as well as an unprecedented bonanza of seismic data and weather data.

Just don’t expect two-day delivery, even though the big event takes place on Cyber Monday. Banerdt estimates it’ll be two or three months before all the instruments are set down on the ground and providing data — but he and the rest of the InSight team say it’ll be worth the wait. There may even be a surprise or two.

“It’s always the things we don’t expect that turn out to be the most intriguing,” Smrekar said.

NASA is planning to live-stream its final pre-landing news conference at 10 a.m. PT Sunday, followed by a NASA Social Q&A with the InSight team at 1 p.m. PT. Monday’s NASA TV coverage includes live interviews with mission experts from 3 to 7 a.m. PT, landing commentary beginning at 11 a.m., and a post-landing news conference no earlier than 2 p.m. ET. For an entertaining look at the InSight mission, check out The Oatmeal’s comic-book primer, created by Seattle’s own Matthew Inman.

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