On November 26, 2018, scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California held their breath as the InSight spacecraft attempted the most challenging part of its 300 million-mile-long journey to Mars – landing. At 2:53 p.m. EST, following a few nail-biting moments, the room erupted in joy at the sound of the official “beep,” and the grainy photo of the Red Planet which confirmed that the lander had not only touched down safely but was functioning as expected.
“The hairs on the back of my neck would start rising a little bit higher, a little bit higher,” said Tom Hoffman, the mission’s project manager. As InSight completed each task toward the goal of landing, the engineers’ anxiety level would drop just a little bit more. “And then when we finally got the confirmation of touchdown, it was completely amazing. The whole room went crazy. My inner four-year-old came out.”
The researcher says the landing is challenging due to the combination of Mars’ relatively strong gravitational pull and its wispy atmosphere, which is just 1 percent as thick as that of Earth’s. The gravitational pull causes approaching spacecraft to accelerate to high speeds, while the latter does little to help dissipate the energy and slow it down as it approaches the surface. Hence, the scientists had to devise a series of tricky maneuvers to reduce InSight’s blazing 13,000 miles-per-hour speed as it pierced through the atmosphere to a safe landing speed of less than five mph – in just six and a half minutes. The target entry angle also had to be a precise 12 degrees – any steeper, and the spacecraft would burn up; any flatter, and it would bounce off the atmosphere and get lost in space. It is no wonder that the final approach is often referred to as the “seven minutes of terror.”
InSight will spend the next two Earth years (about the length of one Mars year) studying the interior of the Red Planet using a suite of instruments. These include seismometers to record any Mars-quakes, as well as heat probes to determine its underground temperatures. The researchers believe the international mission, which cost $850 million, will provide insight into the formation of Mars and other rocky, terrestrial planets, such as Earth, Venus and Mercury. NASA also hopes to find out what makes the Red Planet and Earth - probably formed by similar processes 4.5 billion years ago - so different. “How we get from a ball of featureless rock into a planet that may or may not support life is a key question in planetary science,” said Bruce Banerdt, InSight principal investigator at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “We’d like to be able to understand what happened.”
The researcher says that on Earth, the processes have been obscured over billions of years by earthquakes and the movement of molten rock in the mantle. However, since Mars is geologically less active, it may be able to yield more clues.
However, before the ambitious project begins, NASA engineers have to first determine the lander’s exact location and find the optimal place to deploy the deep sensor underground to obtain temperature readings. They also have to ensure the robotic arm is functioning properly to complete its tasks. These include grabbing and placing the sensors and equipment in the correct area and covering the seismometer with a protective shield to keep it from being damaged by the Red Planet’s extreme environment.
The scientists, who liken monitoring the robotic arm to playing a claw machine game except without the claw, say what makes the task even more challenging is the eight minutes it takes for radio signals to be received from Mars and vice versa. The time delay makes instantaneous tweaks to the robotic arm impossible. But JPL director Michael Watkins is optimistic everything will go according to plan and says, "In the coming months and years even, history books will be rewritten about the interior of Mars.”
InSight is not the only robot currently roaming around Mars. Curiosity, the most technologically advanced rover ever built, has been scouring its surface since 2012 to try to find evidence of whether the Red Planet ever was – or is – habitable to microbial life. Over the years, its 17 cameras have captured and sent back several stunning images. The latest, revealed by NASA on December 1, 2018, is that of an object that the researchers believe “might be a meteorite because it is so shiny.”
Resources: NASA.gov, Space.com, CNN.com, Verge.com