On the evening of the 26th November, NASA’s InSight lander successfully touched down on the surface of Mars. An explosion of cheers,high-fives and hugs erupted in theJet Propulsion Laboratory as $814 million project landed safely on the red planet.
The heady mix of elation and relief that spread through the scientists, en- gineers, mathematicians and mechan- ics was no surprise following a descent that has been nicknamed the ‘seven minutes of terror’.
But, as InSight (which stands for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations) called home to say that its solar panels had successful- ly opened and sent back some initial pictures, the team could revel in the knowledge that the mission had thus far been a success.
Landing a probe on Mars isinfamously difficult. Most recently out of these numerous attempts, in 2016, the European Space Agency attempted to land on Mars but the landing rockets on their probe turned off too soon, resulting in a destructive crash to the surface. Thus far, NASA is the only space agency to have managed the feat.
Hurtling into the Martian atmosphere at 12,300mph, it used a combination of a heat shield, 12 retro-thrusters (like rockets pointing towards the planet’s surface) and a parachute to slow itself down and cushion its landing.
It also used two novel little satellites (called MarCO A and B) that were sent to Mars along with the lander itself. These briefcase-sized spacecrafts relayed the probe’s signals back to Earth during the landing and took pictures of Mars. Despite being vital components, the two cost less than $20m. This is less than the cost of an aeroplane and adds to the incredible success of the landing.
Although there are multiple NASA probes on the surface of Mars, InSight offers the potential for new and exciting science. Being the most energy-efficient lander to date, it is able to operate on 700W of power – roughly the same as a kitchen blender. This is a great help on Mars as sunlight that reaches the planet is weak at best, and the robot runs on solar power.
In addition to taking photos, InSight is carrying out a three-prong experiment to learn more about how the planet was formed.
First, it will use seismometers to measure so-called ‘Marsquakes’ that shake the planet periodically. These vibrations will give an idea of what layers of material the planet consists of and where they are.
Second, the probe is fitted witha ‘mole’ that can burrow into theground and measure the heat flow tothe planet’s upper layers. This will give an idea of how active the planet still is.
Finally, the probe can measure how much Mars is wobbling on its axis using radio transmitters. Speaking to the BBC, deputy project scientist Suzanne Smrekar explains this with the analogy: “If you take a raw egg and a cooked egg and you spin them, they wobble differently because of the distribution of liquid in the interior. And today we really don’t know if the core of Mars is liquid or solid, and how big that core is. InSight will give us this information.”
For now, InSight is only sending photos of Mars and diagnostic reports about itself home. Nevertheless, as the equipment slowly comes into use, the information received could help Nasa understand the planet’s development and what makes the creation of a planet like Mars similar or different to the creation of our own planet.
Ultimately, this information may allow them to decide whether theycan send humans to colonize theplanet or if life could have been sustainable at any point.
But, at least for the time being,NASA, the scientific community,and the world can all celebrate yet another successful and promising Mars landing. The future of space exploration just got a little brighter.
Image credit: Kevin Gill via Flickr