At 1 p.m. CST (11 a.m. PST), NASA will begin live-streaming its coverage of the Mars probe landing, dubbed “seven minutes of terror” by NASA scientists.
The landing is a devilishly difficult feat. The landing capsule has to batter its way through the atmosphere. It will fly through the Martian air at an initial speed of 12,300 mph, and it must hit the atmosphere at an angle of precisely 12 degrees. Any shallower, and the probe will bounce off into deep space. Any steeper, and the probe will burn itself up in a spectacular and fiery death. The probe will first touch the atmosphere six minutes and 45 seconds before landing. During this phase, it will experience acceleration 12 times that of the Earth’s gravity. Were the probe a 150-pound human, during the flaming descent, it would weigh nearly a ton.
About 3½ minutes after the probe hits the atmosphere, a parachute will deploy, slowing down the probe even more. Fifteen seconds later, explosives will blow the heat shield off, exposing the actual InSight probe hidden inside. Ten seconds after the heat shield falls away, the probe will extend its legs, much like an airplane extends its wheels before touching down.
The probe will fall for an additional two minutes attached to the parachute and protected by its conical shell. About 45 seconds before InSight lands, it will drop out of the shell and fall toward the surface. As soon as it leaves the shell, its landing rockets will ignite.
The actual InSight probe looks a little bit like the Apollo moon lander, with three legs to support it and a boxy top. The rockets will slow it further and stop any remaining horizontal motion. Then, about 15 seconds before touchdown, the InSight probe will descend at a speed of 8 feet per second, before hopefully touching down gently on the Martian surface.
The entire landing sequence will take about seven minutes to occur. A radio signal from Mars to Earth currently takes about eight minutes and seven seconds to get here. So the complete landing process will take place before we find out if it was successful. It will be done automatically, entirely by the probe itself. For the scientists and engineers who designed InSight, this is called “seven minutes of terror.”
CNN contributed to this report.