Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
An artist’s interpretation of the InSight lander operating on the Martian surface.

NASA is just hours away from plopping its robotic geoscientist, the Mars InSight lander, onto the surface of the Red Planet.

Getting a rocket ride to the red planet is the easy part however and touching down on Mars is considered among aerospace engineers to be one of the greatest challenges in the solar system; in fact, about a third of missions successfully launched to the red planet don’t survive a landing.

 

 

But if all goes well, the $850 million project will be landed on a very carefully targeted site, touching down on the Elysium Planitia, a large volcanic plain located a little north of the Curiosity rover’s home.

Once InSight touches down, it will twiddle its thumbs for about 16 minutes to allow the dust it kicks up to settle down again. Then, the lander will deploy its circular solar arrays — a crucial step in the process, since the battery on board will last only about one Martian day.

 

 

The confirmation that the solar arrays unfurled is relayed via the orbiter 2001 Mars Odyssey. But that spacecraft will be on the wrong side of the planet to send its message back to Earth, so the team will need to wait for nearly 6 hours for the orbital mechanics to line up properly.

When InSight launched on May 5, 2018, two briefcase-sized vehicles were tucked off to the side of the lander—a pair of Cubesats called Mars Cube One, or MarCO. The two small companions carry test technology that, if all goes well, will relay signals from the lander straight back to Earth, bypassing the large Mars orbiters.

The rest of us will hear about the landing later on Nov. 26, when NASA holds a news conference after the fact, sometime after 5 p.m. EST (2200 GMT).

Read more about the InSight Spacecraft and its mission to drill, here and here.