Touchdown! A 300 million mile journey ended on November 26 for NASA’s newest Martian lander, InSight. The seven-month journey culminated in a six and a half minute descent through the thin Martian atmosphere, going from 12,300 miles per hour to a soft landing at a location called Elysium Planitia. The landing site is often called “the most boring place on Mars” due to its flat topography and low elevation. In what is called “seven minutes of terror,” the control teams on Earth have no way of knowing if a spacecraft survived the descent until after it happens. Only 40% of all spacecraft sent to Mars survive the long journey, and the recent landing represents a huge success for the scientific community.
NASA Principal Investigator Bruce Banerdt says the reason for sending an 830 million dollar lander is to better understand not only Mars, but the Earth as well. He said, “We can use Mars as a time machine to go back and look at what the Earth must’ve looked like a few tens of millions of years after it formed.” The team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory will investigate the Red Planet using InSight’s three main onboard instruments: the seismometer, a temperature probe, and an instrument called RISE, which will monitor the movement of the planet around the sun. The seismometer will listen for any geologic movement inside the planet. That includes marsquakes, meteorite impacts, and surface vibrations caused by dust storms and not by Martians… hopefully.
InSight’s heat probe called HP3 will dig sixteen feet below the surface of Mars in the hopes of revealing how much heat is flowing out of the planet. Investigation Lead at NASA, Tilman Spohn said, “HP3 will take Mars’ temperature, tell us how much heat is leaving the planet and whether Earth and Mars formed from the same stuff.” Spohn wants to find out what geologic activity drove climate change on Mars. “How much heat did Mars start with? How much was left to drive its volcanism?” Spohn wondered.
The RISE instrument will use radio antennas to help determine the amount of planetary wobble that Mars experiences over time. This may reflect the makeup of the planet’s core, determining if it is a liquid or solid core. This is important because we know that Earth has a molten core that gives us the magnetic field to shield us from solar radiation. We also know that Mars used to have a magnetic field and must have lost it at some point. It will be months until InSight will finish deploying these instruments and start collecting data.
Franklin High School physics teacher David Stroup, said, “by looking into Mars we might also be looking into Earth’s distant future, and that’s gotta be good for the planet that we’re on. What I really want to see is humans on Mars. This sort of work is very valuable… but if we send humans to Mars we would learn more in one mission than in the last 50 years,” explained Stroup. “If we committed to it, we could do it really soon… but right now I’m not sure.”