Engineers and scientists who spent years preparing the InSight lander for its journey to Mars will have to sit and wait on Nov. 26 while the vehicle carrying the lander descends from space to the surface of the red planet at about 20,000 kilometers per hour. 

Those people in the mission rooms at NASA-funded Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and at Lockheed Martin in Colorado won’t be the only ones watching updates about the descent of InSight and bracing for it to signal if it lands safely. People around the world will be able to view a livestream on NASA’s website starting at 11a.m. PT will hear and see updates of InSight’s trajectory prior to the landing expected at 11:54 a.m. PT. An estimated 3 million people watched NASA’s livestream of the Curiosity rover landing in 2012.

During the NASA livestream, JPL commentators, as they have in the past, will narrate the updates as they pour in from InSight and satellites orbiting Mars. The livestream will also include interviews with scientists and engineers about the mission. NASA is still working out the details, but it should be quite a production.

Livestream video from the mission rooms in Colorado and California could show the teams jumping and cheering if InSight lands safely, or panicking if they can’t contact the lander after the seven-minute landing process NASA calls the “seven minutes of terror.” 

“If we don’t see things within 10 minutes we’re all going to panic,” Erin Roethlisberger, a spacecraft systems engineers at Lockheed Martin joked how her team in Colorado will wait for a safe landing signal following the eight-minute communications delay between Mars and Earth. Roethlisberger said she and her team will have to wait after sending the final commands to InSight for the automated descent and landing process hours before the livestream begins.

“Unfortunately once you get really close to Mars there are very few last-minute adjustments you can make,” Roethlisberger said. 

Landing on Mars is risky, as JPL in 1999 lost contact with the Mars Polar Lander during its descent and later determined it crashed. Russia has sent landers to Mars, but only landers sent by the U.S. have resumed contact with Earth after descending to the surface undamaged.

If the InSight lander is operational after reaching the surface, a JPL controller in California would use a fisheye lens camera on its belly to take a wide-angle photo of the surrounding Elysium Planitia plains once the dust from the landing clears. NASA would post the photo on its website after the livestream. 

Scientists are baffled by how rocky planets are formed, so through November 2020 InSight, short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, would measure activity within Mars by placing a package of six seismometers on the surface. A self-hammering spike attached to the lander would also dig five meters beneath the surface to collect heat measurements, deeper than any Mars lander has ever burrowed. 

Subsurface heat data it collects along with seismic measurements could paint a picture of “conditions back in the early history of Mars,” Sue Smrekar, the deputy principal investigator for InSight at JPL, said in an interview.

Scientists don’t know why the core of Mars stopped generating magnetic protection for its atmosphere, so radio signals detected by the lander could answer whether the core of Mars is “alive” and partially molten, Smrekar said. The lander would do so with the Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment to detect a tiny “wobble” in the rotation of the planet, she explained. 

NASA theorizes that after the core of Mars stopped generating a magnetic field similar to the one protecting Earth against radiation and solar winds, the red planet lost its atmosphere and possibly oceans over the eons. The InSight team wants answers about what happened. NASA says it is the first space robotic explorer to study the crust, mantle and core of Mars, and that InSight will give Mars “its first thorough checkup” in 4.5 billion years.

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