How Will The InSight Mission Confirm Its Landing On Mars?

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NASA’s InSight mission, which was launched in May, should be landing on Mars on Nov. 26. NASA shared an update explaining how the spacecraft will communicate after landing on the Red Planet.

To confirm that the spacecraft’s landing on Mars was successful, NASA’s team will use variety of instruments, including radio telescopes here on Earth. The space agency wants to make sure the mission will start on the Red Planet will start out strong.

In a press release, NASA explained that the signals from the InSight mission will be transmitted to Earth in different ways and at different times so that multiple spacecraft can catch them. The InSight team will know the spacecraft touched down on the planet’s surface immediately or within a few hours of the landing.

The agency explained that as the spacecraft enters Mars’ atmosphere, it will send a short radio signal called a “tone” back to Earth. Meanwhile, NASA’s engineers will be tracking and tuning in to the signals from two locations – the National Science Foundation’s Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia and the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy’s facility in Effelsberg, Germany. The results from these two locations will then be transmitted to Mission Control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a team of engineers at Lockheed Martin Space in Denver, Colo.

Although the tones won’t reveal many details, radio engineers can use them to track key events during InSight’s entry, descend and landing (EDL). Two spacecraft which will track the landing are flying behind InSight. The experimental MarCOs, which belong to a special class of spacecraft called CubeSats, will attempt to transmit signals back to Earth. The signals may even include images from InSight showing the Martian surface immediately after it touches Martian soil.

Once it touches the ground, the InSight spacecraft will transmit a signal basically screaming, “I made it!” Seven minutes later, it will say it again, louder and clearer. The tone beacon it will use to communicate should be caught by radio telescopes on Earth. In its second message, the spacecraft will use its X-band antenna, which should be pointed at Earth at that time. Scientists should be able to see that the spacecraft landed successfully and that it’s in a healthy, functioning state.

NASA will also track the InSight mission and landing on Mars using its Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which should record data during InSight’s descent. MRO will store the data during the EDL phase as it disappears around the other side of the Red Planet. When it reappears on the other side of Mars, it will send the data back for engineers to study. By 6 p.m. Eastern the day of the InSight’s arrival, the team should be able to put all the data pieces together.

NASA’s 2001 Mars Odyssey, its longest-lasting spacecraft, will also send back information on InSight’s landing on Mars. It will relay data once the spacecraft touches the Martian soil, sending the entire history of its descent to Mars, accompanied by a few images. Odyssey will also confirm that InSight spread its solar arrays.

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