NASA explains how it’ll know when InSight touches down on Mars

Brittany A. Roston - Nov 16, 2018, 7:29 pm CST
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NASA explains how it’ll know when InSight touches down on Mars

NASA has detailed how its team will know when the InSight lander touches down on the Red Planet. The process was recently explained by scientists with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which has been tasked with managing the mission for the space agency’s Science Mission Directorate. Assuming everything goes according to plan, InSight lander will make touch down on November 26.

InSight stands for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, and it marks NASA’s latest Mars mission. The spacecraft will be tasked with studying the Red Planet’s deep interior, potentially giving scientists their first look at what lies deep beneath Mars’ surface.

NASA previously explained that landing a spacecraft on Mars is not easy, and for that reason only about 40-percent of humanity’s attempts have proven successful. The US holds the distinction as the only nation with missions that have survived landing on the planet, a record it will hopefully expand later this month.

The space agency says InSight is based on the previously launched — and successful — Phoenix spacecraft, though some “tweaks” have been made to the parachute and heat shield. The landing design has proven successful in the past, stoking hope that InSight will see similar success. And unlike Opportunity, which has been silent for months following a storm on Mars, InSight was designed to touch down in the middle of a dust storm if it has to.

In its most recent update about the mission, NASA explained that its team will receive a variety of signals from InSight later this month as it makes its approach. Though the event will be happening 91 million miles from Earth, researchers may know as soon as InSight makes landfall, though the space agency says it could be up to several hours before that information is relayed.

In addition to simple radio signals broadcasted by the lander, a pair of small spacecraft flying behind InSight will help relay signals back to scientists on Earth. NASA says these CubSats are still considered experimental technology at this time; this mission will help determine what role the tech may play in future missions.

InSight is designed to send a signal announcing touchdown once the event happens, as well as a second more powerful announcement seven minutes later. The first weaker signal will be a tone beacon hopefully picked up by radio telescopes. The second, though, will be a solid “beep” using an X-band antenna pointed toward Earth. More data will be transmitted by the “beep,” indicating that the spacecraft is on the ground and in healthy condition.

NASA isn’t only relying on the CubSats for its mission, also tapping the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to record data on InSight’s descent. The space agency describes MRO’s data as something similar to an airplane’s “black box” recorder that could shed light on what happened if InSight doesn’t survive the landing.


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