InSight's Mission Duration

Mars Time Earth Time
Days 709 Sols 728 days
Years 1 year and 40 sols Nearly two years

The InSight lander begins surface operations the minute it lands at Elysium Planitia on Mars, but science data collection doesn’t start fully until about 10 weeks after landing. That's because InSight's science goals and instruments are very different from other Mars landers or rovers that have gone before. In some ways, InSight's science activities are more like a marathon than a sprint. The lander team must carefully select where to place the precious science instruments, which will be the first to study the interior of Mars.

Direct Contact with the Surface of Mars

InSight must place its Heat flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) and Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) on the surface, in direct contact with Mars in order to take the “vital signs” of Mars. This makes InSight the first mission to directly study the deep interior of a planet other than Earth. To truly study the larger picture of the deep Martian interior, all three primary science instruments (the Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment, RISE, as well as SEIS and HP3) will collect science data for at least one Mars year (about 23 Earth months). Once SEIS and HP3 are placed on the surface of Mars and are ready for science operations, they will remain stationary for the remainder of the mission.

At launch, the instruments are securely stowed on the lander deck. It is the job of InSight's robotic arm to place them on the surface after landing. To get it right, the lander and the operations team on Earth must move carefully and deliberately, and ensure the instruments are placed properly for the best observations. Placing the instruments in direct contact with the surface, and monitoring them closely, are key to the quality of science data InSight will collect on Mars. The mission may well rewrite textbooks. There's a lot of pressure on the team to make all the right moves!

First Things First: Solar Power

The dust from landing should settle about 15 minutes after InSight makes it to the surface. After this, the solar array motors warm up and prepare to unfurl the solar panels. This is an important activity that ensures that the lander has all the power it needs to get to work on Mars. This, and other tasks on landing day take place autonomously, without human intervention.

Other Checkouts on Landing Day Include:

  • Checking the lander's health indicators
  • Taking a wide-angle image (with lens cover on)
  • Powering down to "sleep" mode for the first night on Mars

What We Can Expect the First Few Weeks After Landing

Some science data collection begins the first week after landing. RISE, the Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment, begins collecting data a few days after landing. The lander will take pictures of the instrument deployment area, and start monitoring the weather and surface temperature at its new home. But since the heat probe and seismometer need to be on the surface of Mars to collect data, they have to wait a few more weeks before they can be fully deployed.

InSight is the first mission dedicated to investigating the deep interior of Mars. The findings will advance understanding of how all rocky planets, including Earth, formed and evolved.
InSight is the first mission dedicated to investigating the deep interior of Mars. The findings will advance understanding of how all rocky planets, including Earth, formed and evolved.

RISE Gets to Work

RISE is a silent worker. Its job is to stay on the lander deck and trade X-band radio signals back and forth with Earth for an hour or so each day. It must do this for about two years in order to detect subtle, slow changes in Mars' wobble. Watching for small changes in the signals as seen on Earth will help answer questions about the nature of Mars' core. RISE will be the first instrument to start collecting science data for InSight, likely on the very day that InSight lands on Mars.

Studying its New Home

InSight will take the first three weeks or so after landing to really get to know its new home. On its first day on Mars, the cameras on the lander deck and the arm will both take photos with their transparent lens covers on. Both cameras will take images with the lens cover off within their first week on Mars. These images will give the team back on Earth a quick look at the terrain of InSight's landing location.

For the first three weeks on Mars, InSight will image its workspace next to the lander in detail, using stereo image pairs to create 3D images to find the best places on the surface to put the heat probe and seismometer.

Over the next several Martian days, InSight will check that its arm can pick-up and perform its functions without a hitch. This is the first time a robotic arm will pick up an instrument and place it onto the surface of another planet. So it will need to rehearse its actions a few times on Earth first before doing so on Mars.

Deploying the Seismometer

Once the initial checks on the arm are complete, about five to six weeks after landing, InSight's robotic arm will deploy the seismometer, the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS), at the chosen spot. A week or so later, the arm will place the seismometer's protective dome, its wind and thermal shield, on top. With that, the seismometer is ready to detect seismic waves generated by marsquakes, meteorite impacts, and other sources.

The Heat Probe Begins to Burrow

InSight's Heat flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) deploys about one week after the seismometer is in place. InSight's arm will place the heat probe on the ground, and it will begin to slowly burrow down from its location. The mole at the end of the probe slowly burrows into the ground like a self-hammering nail. It hammers down for up to four hours at a time; each four-hour period is known as one "hammering cycle." As it descends, it stops roughly every 19.5 inches (50 centimeters) to generate a pulse of heat. The probe watches how this pulse of heat travels through the subsurface material around it. It monitors how quickly or slowly the mole heats up the surrounding soil; this is known as measuring the "thermal conductivity" of the soil.

Taking these measurements for a few days during each hammering cycle along the way is an important step in understanding the science data that InSight will send back to Earth. HP3 should take about 40 days to reach 16 feet (5 meters) deep.

As the heat probe makes its way down, its hammering motion will generate vibrations. Scientists back on Earth can use the seismometer to detect these vibrations and study the ground beneath. As the heat probe hammers down, the seismometer should be able to measure the speed of the vibrational waves in the soil generated by the hammering motion. It should be able to detect reflections of these waves as they bounce off any shallow buried layers, such as lava flows, unveiling the structure of the subsurface.

Talking to Earth While Setting Up

InSight normally talks to Earth once per Martian day via the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) or Mars Odyssey. But during the critical first few weeks after landing, it will be in touch with Earth twice a day. In addition it will also talk directly to ground stations on Earth through a lower-speed link. This frequent contact with Earth will continue until all checks are complete and routine operations begin. It also gives the operations team the chance to plan the next day of operations based on the results of the previous day's activities.

InSight's Surface Operations Schedule

The team back on Earth have rehearsed InSight's first few months on Mars many times. A sample timetable for its first few weeks is below.

Surface Operations Sample Timeline
Action Time After Landing
Surface operations begin At touchdown. First data arrive back on Earth about 16 minutes later
Deck camera takes pictures with the lens cover on A few minutes after touchdown
Landing day checkouts start On landing day (Sol 0)
Arm and deck camera take pictures with the lens cover off The camera on the lander deck takes an image with its cover off on Sol 2. The cover on the camera on the arm is released on Sol 3 and it takes its first image with the cover off on Sol 4
Some science data collection begins A few days after landing
Lander cameras image the landing site 1 to 2 weeks after landing
RISE begins science observations 1 day after landing
Initial checks of the robotic arm First week after landing
Deployment of Instruments on the Surface of Mars
Arm places seismometer on the surface 3 to 4 weeks after landing
Arm places protective wind and thermal shield on seismometer Within 2 weeks after placing the seismometer on the ground
SEIS begins science measurements 1 week after placing the wind and thermal shield on the seismometer
Arm places heat probe on the surface 1 to 2 weeks after placing the wind and thermal shield on the seismometer
HP3 mole burrows to its final depth and begins science observations 4-6 weeks after placing HP3 on the surface
Routine operations start 2-4 weeks after HP3 finishes burrowing under the surface

Routine Operations

InSight's routine operations start about two to four weeks after all the instruments have been placed on the surface of Mars and the HP3 has completed penetration. For more information on what occurs during this phase, see Science and Instruments.