Michael Weinhoffer/Staff Reporter
On Nov. 26, at 2:52 PM EST, NASA’s newest robotic spacecraft touched down on Mars, joining the Curiosity rover which landed in 2012. Called InSight, this lander will conduct a few experiments that will expand our knowledge of the interior composition and activity of Mars. Along with a few firsts in the history of spaceflight, InSight will tell us more about the interior of Mars than any other mission in history.
Like the majority of NASA mission names, InSight is a clever acronym. InSight stands for Interior exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy, and Heat Transport. InSight was launched in May of this year on a very foggy morning from Vandenberg Air Force Base in southern California and took about six months to travel directly to Mars. The launch itself was historic, as it was the first deep space mission launched from the west coast of the United States. All other crewless NASA missions have been launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida. InSight was selected to be NASA’s next Mars mission in Aug. 2012, which is the same month that the Curiosity rover landed on Mars. The lander was initially supposed to launch in March 2016, but a problem with one of its scientific instruments forced a two-year delay due to the narrow launch window.
InSight is a stationary lander, which means that it will sit in one location on Mars and study its immediate surroundings intently, unlike the Mars rovers, which move very slowly on the surface and are mobile laboratories. The lander has three scientific instruments: SEIS, HP3, and RISE. SEIS stands for the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure and was built by the French space agency, CNES. SEIS is an extremely sensitive seismometer that will detect seismic vibrations from Mars’ interior, which may include “marsquakes.” The instrument will also detect meteor impacts on Mars’ surface. Understanding the seismic activity of Mars will allow scientists to determine the similarity of Mars’ internal activity with that of the Earth. The second experiment is called HP3 (pronounced “h-p-cubed”) and stands for Heat and Physical Properties Probe. It was designed and built by the German space agency, known as the DLR. This device will collect heat flow and temperature data by digging a sixteen-feet hole into the Martian soil. A metal rod called a penetrometer will be driven into the ground using an electric motor that tensions and releases a spring. A tether follows the penetrometer into the ground and takes temperature readings on the way down using attached temperature sensors. After the dig is complete, the rod will remain in the ground for the duration of InSight’s mission and collect long-term data about the thermal activity of Mars’ interior. Both SEIS and HP3 will be placed on the Martian surface early next year by a robotic arm, which is operated remotely from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Until science experiments start, InSight will take pictures of its surroundings to help NASA determine the best location to place the instruments. The third instrument, the Rotation, and Interior Structure Experiment (RISE) consist of two antennas mounted on the lander’s body that will measure the “wobble” of Mars on its axis to learn more about the interior composition of Mars.
InSight landed on the western side of a flat plain called the Elysium Planitia, which is near Mars’ equator. A flat surface with few rocks was necessary because if InSight had landed on a rock, it could have been titled to its side, which would have complicated operations. The HP3 instrument also requires a flat area. The entire landing sequence took six and a half minutes, from atmospheric entry to touchdown. InSight entered the atmosphere at 12,300 mph but using a combination of a heat shield, supersonic parachute, and retro-rockets, the lander touched down with nothing more than a little bounce at five mph. A few minutes after touchdown, InSight sent an image of its new home, and later took another photo with the camera on its robotic arm. NASA also had some help during the landing phase courtesy of the two Mars Cube One (MarCO) spacecraft, which are about the size of a briefcase. Their primary mission as the first deep space small spacecraft was to relay data from InSight to NASA as the landing occurred. This is a more reliable method than relying on InSight itself or another Mars orbiter to communicate with Earth. Both spacecraft performed flawlessly during their flyby, and one of them even took a picture of Mars as it flew away from the planet. The MarCO twins may have their mission extended after all data is collected and if the spacecrafts are healthy.
InSight will tell us more about the interior of Mars than any previous mission, which could help scientists understand the contrasts between the geology of Mars and the Earth. Although the U.S. has landed spacecraft on Mars a handful of times, each landing attempt presents its unique challenges, and there is no guarantee of success. With InSight safely on the ground and powering itself using its solar arrays, science operations will soon commence, and Mars will be explored from an entirely new perspective.
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