Mars InSight Landing Coverage

NASA's InSight lander is about to touch down and will immediately begin to decipher the secrets that lie beneath the Martian soil.

What's more, Monday afternoon will be the first time NASA has attempted to land on Mars in six years, so the stakes are higher. (And also less than the 8 minutes it takes for communication to reach Earth from Mars; all times in this story reflect the arrival of InSight's signal.) Based on NASA's Phoenix spacecraft, which landed in 2008, InSight uses retrorockets to slow the craft directly, rather than a "sky crane" to lower itself like Curiosity.

Once on the Martian surface, InSight will study the red planet, but unlike previous Mars rovers, it will stay in one place, its job is to tell us more about the interior of Mars. "Now we finally will explore inside Mars and deepen our understanding of our terrestrial neighbor as NASA prepares to send human explorers deeper into the solar system". This will be followed by a post-landing news conference, which is scheduled to take place at about 5 P.M. EST.

InSight is equipped with two primary instruments: the Seismic Experiment Interior Structure - SEIS - seismometer, provided by the French space agency, CNES, and the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Probe - HP3 - provided by the German Aerospace Agency, DLR. "On Mars, when we start getting these Marsquakes, they're going to be telling us where there's stuff going on on Mars, where the forces are concentrating, and I think that's going to tell us something that was probably completely absent from our models". Signals also could travel straight from InSight to radio telescopes in West Virginia and Germany.

Of 43 other worldwide attempts to send orbiters, probes, landers or rovers to Mars, 25 have not made it.

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.

In recent days, NASA has been commanding the spacecraft to make minor course corrections to ensure InSight enters the Martian atmosphere at the proper angle to within about a quarter of a degree. Up to now, the success rate at the red planet was only 40 percent, counting every attempted flyby, orbital flight and landing by the U.S., Russian Federation and other countries since 1960.

Once InSight successfully lands - if it survives the perilous entry - it must be properly aligned with the sun to keep producing power and charging its batteries. The probe will first touch the atmosphere six minutes and 45 seconds before landing.

An artist's conception shows NASA's Mars InSight firing its thrusters for landing. NASA engineers don't call it "seven minutes of terror" for nothing. And Tuesday night, the Mars Odyssey orbiter should confirm that the spacecraft's solar arrays have unfurled.

InSight is landing in what seems to bea very boring part of Mars, known as Elysium Planitia. This spot is open, flat safe and boring, which is what the scientists want for a stationary two-year mission.

The suite of geophysical instruments on InSight sounds like a doctor's bag, giving Mars its first "checkup" since it formed.

Meanwhile, a radio transmitter will send signals back to Earth, tracking Mars' subtle rotational wobble to reveal the size of the planet's core and possibly whether it remains molten. It is also carrying a seismometer to monitor earthquakes, as Nasa attempts to answer "fundamental questions about the formation of Earth-like planets".

  • Joey Payne