For the first time in six years a NASA spacecraft is about to land on the surface of Mars, and you can follow its progress live right here.
The goal of the spacecraft, called InSight, is to probe the red planet’s interior, revealing the internal structure, temperature and seismic activity of our planetary neighbor.
Because it is a lander and not a rover, InSight — once it reaches the Martian surface — will remain in the same spot for the duration of its two-year mission.
Touchdown is expected to take place close to noon Pacific time, but NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory will start streaming live video from its campus in La Cañada Flintridge at 11 a.m.
Viewers can expect to hear commentary from mission planners as well as check in with anxious engineers at JPL’s Mission Control as the spacecraft makes its final descent.
Unfortunately, we won’t be able to see InSight descend to Mars in real time. The spacecraft is not equipped with video cameras to record its own landing.
Instead, the InSight team will rely on a variety of different signals to determine whether the spacecraft has successfully reached its ultimate destination, 91 million miles from Earth.
In the minutes before InSight’s scheduled touchdown, radio telescope operators in West Virginia and Effelsberg, Germany, will be listening for fluctuations in the frequency of a simple radio signal emitted by the spacecraft. These changes will indicate at each stage when the lander has entered the Martian atmosphere, deployed its parachute and landed on the surface.
Once the lander reaches solid ground it will send two signals to announce its arrival. The first is a radio signal that may or may not be detected by the radio telescopes. Seven minutes later it will broadcast a more powerful signal from its X-band antenna that will convey more information about its health.
If NASA’s Deep Space Network receives this signal, that will mean InSight has had a successful landing.
It’s also possible that engineers will receive information about the final moments of InSight’s journey from two small experimental spacecraft that tagged along with it to Mars.
Together, these two small crafts are known as Mars Cube One (MarCO). They are briefcase-sized, and if they function as expected, they will transmit data from InSight back to Earth in mere minutes.
Once all this information is gathered, NASA officials plan to hold a news conference no earlier than 2 p.m. Pacific time Monday. You can watch that here as well.