If just getting to Mars was fun, imagine the discovery the InSight lander has yet ahead.
The $814 million two-year NASA mission, after traveling through space for more than six months and crossing 300 million miles, survived its soft landing on the red planet on Nov. 26. The robotic probe was traveling at 13,200 mph through Mars’ thin atmosphere in its final dramatic moments before touchdown.
NASA has already had seven successful Mars landings, but only 40 percent of missions to the planet have succeeded. So to say just making the journey there takes planning, precision and, yes, hope is an understatement.
“Our accuracy is comparable to shooting a basketball from Staples Center in downtown L.A. and hitting nothing but net in a basketball hoop in New York City that is moving about two feet per second and is spinning on its access,” Fernando Abilleira, navigator in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said during the NASA live stream on touchdown day Nov. 26. He added that the target location for landing – some 300 million miles at the end of its journey after launching in May 2018 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California – was about seven-and-a-half miles in size.
Now that InSight is on the surface, the next mission’s next phase – and fun – begins.
InSight will map out the deep structure of Mars, including its core, crust, and mantle. Whereas previous missions have studied the planet’s surface, InSight is going into the interior.
“We know a lot about the surface of Mars; we know a lot about its atmosphere and even about its ionosphere. But we don’t know very much about what goes on a mile below the surface much less 2,000 miles below the surface down to the center,” Bruce Banerdt, InSight Principal Investigator, explained from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
After burrowing an instrument five meters into the Mars ground, InSight will measure the planet’s temperature. Another experiment will eventually determine how Mars wobbles on its axis.
The mission will provide new answers into the structure of Mars to reveal why among other things the planet is uninhabitable. Seismic probes aboard InSight will examine ‘marsquakes’ beneath the planet’s surface in much the same way scientists measure earthquakes back home.
Previous missions to the red planet have literally only scratched the surface on Martian knowledge – and its history. InSight will go beneath the surface for the first time, with the knowledge gained leading to better understandings of Earth, Venus, Mercury, our own Moon, as well as exoplanets around other stars.
“InSight is a mission to Mars, but it’s much, much more than a Mars mission,” Banerdt said. “In some senses, it’s like a time machine. It’s measuring the structure of Mars that was put in place four-and-a-half billion years ago.”
The lander itself is almost 20 feet long, about five feet wide, and weighs nearly 800 pounds. Two solar panels will provide its electrical power, and science instruments on board include a seismometer, heat probe and a radio science experiment.
“InSight, short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport … (will) give the Red Planet its first thorough checkup since it formed 4.5 billion years ago,” NASA states.
In other words, now that engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory have successfully sweated out this week’s touchdown, they’ll wait next for scientific results to start pouring in as the mission continues.
“In comparison to the other terrestrial planets, Mars is neither too big nor too small. This means that it preserves the record of its formation and can give us insight into how the terrestrial planets formed,” NASA notes. “It is the perfect laboratory from which to study the formation and evolution of rocky planets. Scientists know that Mars has low levels of geological activity. But a lander like InSight can also reveal just how active Mars really is.”