What to expect from landing InSight to Mars

In less than a week, on November 26, NASA will make its first landing on Mars in the last 6 years (not counting the failure of the ESA Schiaparelli EDM). The NASA InSight landing geological platform will crash into the atmosphere at approximately 10:47 pm Minsk time, after which the “7 minutes of horror” will begin. We have prepared for you a translation of the timing of landing, written by the chief editor of the blog Planetary Society Emily Lakdavalla.

The InSight platform was launched to Mars on May 5, 2018 in a company with two cubic satellites MarCO. In fact, they are experimental devices, the task of which is to prove that a small cube format can survive an interplanetary flight. Directly from Mars, they will act as communication repeaters, transmitting the platform data to Earth. InSight is not a rover. This is a static platform built “in the image and likeness” of the Phoenix. She will not travel across Mars and will spend her entire life at the landing site. On Mars, she will study the geology of the Red Planet. The duration of the mission is two years.

Emily Lakdavalla, the author of the original article, is the chief editor of The Planetary Society blog, the author of several works in geology, the topography of Mars and education. Emily is a frequent blog author and space exploration enthusiast. We slightly adapted the original text to the geography of Eastern Europe. In the timeline of the landing below you will find time stamps for the PST zones (zone of the InSight MCC) UTC, UTC + 2 (Kiev) and UTC + 3 (Minsk, Moscow). Also, on the day of the landing of the InSight, we will most likely conduct a landing stream mentioning the key events according to timing and transfer of their confirmations from the MCC apparatus.

If all goes well, excited space astronaut fans on Earth will learn that InSight successfully landed on Mars on November 26, 2018 at 19:53 UTC (22:53 Minsk time, then UTC + 3. – ). As it happens during all landings to Mars, none of the observers will be able to do something that can affect the result. All we can do is wait and hope that everything will work as it should. JPL published a great video featuring Rob Manning, a Mars expert on Mars, who explains how things are going to be there. And I made infographics for you so that you can follow its stages.

Emily Lakdavall for Planetary Society. Translation and adaptation of Nikita Lyashkevich

InSight will sit down like machines from the past: simpler than Curiosity, and identical to landing Phoenix. It will use a heat shield, parachute and jet landing, but here we will not see a fashionable adjustment of the descent or operation of the Skycrane platform. Because the landing process will be simpler, it will not become less intimidating: this is the length of time in which decades of work are concentrated in a few minutes of automatic maneuvers that turn a flying saucer from space into a landing machine that is confidently standing on the surface.

All events will unfold in the world, which is from us in 8.1 minutes of flight at the speed of light. At the time when we on Earth receive a signal that InSight sensed the atmosphere of Mars, in one sense or another on Mars, the whole process will come to an end. Those who now decide to remind me of the illusion of simultaneity, please: please do not.

From the moment when InSight crashes into the upper layer of the atmosphere of Mars, until the moment when its supports touch the ground, it will take only 6 minutes and 45 seconds. Attentive readers will now notice that this is a slightly shorter period of time than the “7 minutes of horror” of the Curiosity rover. There are two reasons why landing an InSight will be a little faster. First, Curiosity used an intelligent descent assist system that could control its flight, adding seconds to time spent in the atmosphere. Landing InSight – ballistic. Secondly, Curiosity landed in a deep hollow, 1,800 meters lower than the landing site of InSight. The height of the Curiosity landing site was 4501 meters lower than the Martian average — the center of the ellipse of the InSight landing site was 2655 meters. Mars has no “sea level”, so after As Mars Global Surveyor investigated the topography of Mars, scientists took an average radius of 3396 kilometers for zero altitude on Mars. All landing sites have always been below this value, because heat shields and parachutes need a lot of atmosphere so that they can slow down the falling ship.

Here you have a detailed timeline of events expected on Mars on this day, which takes into account different time zones. All time indicated in the table is the time when the signal will be received on Earth. This means that by the actual time of the event for the ship are added 8 minutes and 7 seconds – the time required for the signal to overcome the space separating Mars and Earth.

Event Time before landing PST UTC UTC + 2 UTC + 3
Last updated entry, drop and fit parameters  –3h  08:47  16:47  18:47  19:47
This is the last chance for navigators to fine-tune the beginning of the descent of InSight into the atmosphere of Mars.Here they can refer to the weather data from the MRO, MAVEN or Curiosity and decide how to correct their sighting, relying on new data.
The beginning of the NASA TV broadcast –1h  11:00  19:00  21:00  22:00
Heaters start preparing engines for landing. –1h  11:00  19:00  21:00  22:00
You have a choice of what to watch broadcast planting: NASA the TV with comments  or clean the air without landing comments on the NASA website or  channel  YouTube.
Undocking the migration module. Now communication works only on data transfer. –0h 13m 45s  11:40  19:40  21:40  22:40
Solar modules and engines that InSight used on their way to Mars are installed on the flight module. They are not designed to survive re-entry into the atmosphere and can not slow down its fall. The migration module will simply collapse, and its debris will fall somewhere further (east) of the landing site of the InSight. InSight begins to be powered by batteries before landing, when it can open its own solar panels.
Getting started with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter –0h 13m 43s  11:40  19:40  21:40  22:40
After undocking the flight module, the Electra radio complex of the Mars Reconnaissance satellite Orbiter will begin to receive data from the ship, communicating with the antenna on the InSight aerodynamic shield in the decimeter range.
The beginning of the turn of the ship –0h 13m 15s  11:40  19:40  21:40  22:40
The maneuver will deploy the ship so that it meets the atmosphere with a heat shield.
Complete the turn of the ship –0ch 11m 45s  11:42  19:42  21:42  22:42
Beginning of decimeter telemetry transmission landing –0h 8m 45s  11:45  7:45 pm  21:45  10:45 pm
The MarCO, MRO and terrestrial radio telescopes will try to receive the ship’s signal.
Start of entry into the atmosphere –6h 6m 45s  11:47  19:47  21:47  22:47
The atmosphere of Mars does not have a strict boundary, but at this point in time in this place InSight should be in a strictly defined position. Beyond this point, the atmosphere may begin to influence its flight path.
Maximum heating (1500 ° C) –0ch 5m 15s  11:48  19:48  21:48  22:48
Hotter than lava and hot enough to melt steel. But the period of peak heating is not long, the heat will not have time to harm more than char and disrupt the outer layer of the heat shield. Ionized gas around the ship can cause temporary interruptions in receiving InSight broadcasts.
Maximum overload (7.5 G) –0h 4m 50s  11:49  19:49  21:49  22:49
The friction between the atmosphere and the heat shield will extinguish 99.5% of the kinetic energy of the InSight even before its parachutes open.
Getting a photo taken by landing a HiRISE camera –0h 3m 8s  11:50 am  19:50  21:50  22:50
HiRISE is a high-resolution camera mounted on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter satellite. With it, they removed the landing of the Phoenix and the Curiosity rover. Such photographs are needed to document the condition of the parachute.This time, she will try to remove the landing of the InSight, but due to the difficult angle of the shooting, the photo may be blurry. It takes about 100 seconds to create a single HiRISE image strip.
Parachute deployment  –0h 3m 7s  11:50 am  19:50  21:50  22:50
The squib rifle is fired off the parachute cover from the upper aerodynamic shell, after which it fully opens in two seconds.
Reset Heat Shield  –0h 2m 52s  11:51  19:51  21:51  22:51
The heat shield will fall to the surface further (east) of the landing site of the InSight, but closer than the debris of the migration module.
Landing pads are extended –0h 2m 42s  11:51  19:51  21:51  22:51
Completion of receiving photos of landing HiRISE camera –0h 1m 28s  11:52  19:52  21:52  22:52
If the HiRISE camera removes the area of ​​the InSight landing trajectory at the moment when the device passes through its field of view, in the photo we will see a ship descending by parachute. The photo will be transmitted to Earth in the period from 2 to 48 hours.
Radar surface intelligence –0h 1m 0s  11:52  19:52  21:52  22:52
Seating platform –0h 0m 45s  11:53  19:53  21:53  22:53
For a second, the platform will begin to fall like a stone, in order to move away from the parachute and the top defense. At this moment a slight loss of signal is possible, since the device will switch from the antenna located on the protection to its own. Protection and parachute will fall closer along the flight path (trap) and, possibly, will slightly shift to the south or north.
Ignition of landing engines –0h 0m 44s  11:53  19:53  21:53 22:53
After the operation of the radar, the landing engines compensate for the necessary adjustments in the horizontal and vertical axes. If the landing platform feels that it is moving too quickly horizontally, it will perform a side-shift maneuver so as not to collide with the upper defenses, and then adjust the speed. Also, the ship will deploy itself so that after landing the solar panels are oriented to the west and east, and the working tools to the south.
Start descent with constant speed –0h 0m 15s  11:53  19:53  21:53  22:53
The ship will slow down and begin to decline at a speed of 2.4 m / s before landing.
Landing –0h 0m 0s  11:53  19:53  21:53  22:53
InSight will sense touch with the surface, turn off the landing motors, and change the frequency of the signal, letting us know that these steps have been successfully completed. Within a few minutes after landing, InSight must perform a series of actions, including taking the first photos.
Loss of connection with Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter + 0h 4m 27s  11:58  19:58  21:58  22:58
As soon as the MRO drops to about 10 degrees above the horizon, it will lose contact with the landing platform. The exact time when this happens depends on the exact location of the InSight inside the ellipse, how low it will be relative to the horizon and whether it will be tilted.
The beginning of the disclosure of solar panels + 0h 16m 0s  12:09  20:09  22:09  23:09
Completion of solar panel deployment + 0h 32m 0s  12:25  20:25  22:25  23:25
The end of the broadcast NASA TV + 0h 36m 2s  12:30  20:30  22:30  23:30
InSight will wait long enough before opening the solar panels so that dust will settle after landing. This step is extremely important for the survival of the spacecraft, which, after separation from the flight module, was powered only by batteries.
Conference after landing (inaccurate time) + 2h  2:00 pm  22:00  00:00  01:00
Mars Odyssey over the horizon + 5h 4m 32s  16:58  00:58  02:58  03:58
Mars Odyssey Sunset + 5h 21m 12s  5:15 pm  01:15  3:15 am  4:15 am
Odyssey will start a communication session with InSight, which should transmit landing telemetry and, perhaps (but not exactly), some photos, including those that he could take immediately after the dust had settled.

How will we monitor the landing of the InSight?

There are several ways to receive the InSight radio signal in order to understand how the ship is doing there. Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will record all the data for further analysis, but there are several ways to get them live. None of them will give as much information as the “write and decode later” method, but, most likely, in one way or another we will still receive something “live”. (When I write about “live broadcast”, I remember about 8.1 minutes required for the signal to get to Earth from Mars.)

If we are lucky, the MarCO cubes can receive the InSight signal directly, decode it and transmit to Earth using their more powerful antennas. Such a retransmission of the signal can give us interesting details about how the ship assesses its condition, and about the progress of landing.

During the entire Mars landing, MarCO will transmit InSight data to Earth. NASA / JPL-Caltech

Even if the MarCO cubs do not work, we still have the opportunity to receive information in real time. Any radio communication uses a carrier signal of a certain frequency, which is then changed in order to transmit information. It is easier to detect the carrier signal than to consider small modulations in it. The InSight carrier signal can be received on Earth using large radio telescopes (such as the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia or the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Effelsberg, Germany), but its modulations will be too weak to be detected at that distance.

What can we learn from receiving a real-time InSight carrier signal?

  • While InSight transmits, we know that it did not crash and did not burn. Unfortunately, in the opposite direction it does not work. In fact, there are two points where we expect the signal to disappear, even if InSight is fine. The first will happen during peak heating at entry to the atmosphere, when ionized gas around InSight will interfere with the passage of the radio signal. The second – after the device is separated from the top protection and starts switching from its antenna to its own.
  • Doppler shift of the carrier frequency makes it possible to accurately measure the speed with which the ship moves. Navigators compare it with the estimated, to understand whether the landing according to the predicted plan. Noticeable changes in speed will tell us that the ship hit the atmosphere or released a parachute, although we will not hear a report about this directly from the ship.
  • In the pillars of the ship are pressure sensors that turn off the landing engines as soon as the platform feels landing. When the sensors are triggered, InSight will automatically switch the frequency of the carrier signal to another, letting us know that it felt landing. Radio telescopes on Earth can detect this change in the transmission frequency. (Such a report on the landing still does not mean that the ship is safe.)
  • If InSight will still transmit after the predicted landing time, this is clear evidence that it has gone through the entire process and is in working condition.

So even if the MarCO cubs for some reason do not cope, and I hope that they will cope, we will still have enough information to keep track of what is happening. Assuming, of course, that at InSight itself everything will work as planned!

When will we see the first photos?

Short answer: the first pictures can be taken approximately 10 minutes after landing (about 20:05 UT, or 12:05 PST (or 23:05 Minsk time. – Approx. )), but they can also be 20 hours after landing .

Two cameras are installed on InSight: the first one (Instrument Context Camera or ICC) is needed to view the working space in front of the device, and the second one (Instrument Deployment Camera or IDC) is fixed on the manipulator arm. In the first minutes after landing, the workspace assessment camera will take a picture. The lens will still have protection, so the image will be covered with dust spots from the material lifted into the air during landing. Later, within an hour, after the solar panels fully open and the lens protection is removed, the same camera will take another shot (that’s all I was able to confirm at the JPL office). If you rely on the story at least in something, the first shot with the lens cover closed will be transferred to a small image – a square with a side of 256 pixels. This is some data

The official landing kit press does an excellent job of explaining when and how we get this first shot, so I just copy the text from there: “As soon as InSight touches Mars, the device will have several options to send a picture from the surface. With each of these features, a protective case will still be installed on the camera, which may affect the quality of the image (the first Curiosity images were also made with a dust cover).

The first photo of the Curiosity rover, transmitted from Mars after landing. Hazcam camera optics still have anti-dust protection. Dumps from landing are visible on the image. NASA / JPL-Caltech

The device was programmed to take the first photo within the first few minutes after landing. Transferring them to Earth will take longer. Engineering data has a higher priority, so there is a possibility that in the first hour after landing only a part of the image will be transmitted (or it will not be transferred at all). The image can be transferred in several ways via MarCO, MRO or Odyssey.

How the first InSight images can be sent to Earth:

  • MarCO, a pair of experimental Cubsat satellites can transmit the first image immediately after the entry, descent and landing phases. If this happens, the snapshot (or part of it) will become available within 10–20 minutes after landing.
  • It is unlikely, but the transfer of the picture is possible through the MRO. The MRO will give priority to the transmission of engineering data as it rises above the horizon. The picture transmitted through the MRO will be published in the afternoon (in the USA. In Minsk – at the beginning of the night. – Comm.) .
  • It is also unlikely, but the transfer of the image is possible through Odyssey during its first flight over the InSight, which will occur several hours after landing. At this time, it will receive previously recorded data on the phase of entry, descent and landing. Most likely, he will not have the opportunity to transfer the image during the passage over the horizon. If he can do this, it will be available in the early evening (in the USA. In Minsk – late at night. – Commentary. .
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