A week ago, the InSight spacecraft was successfully landed on the surface of Mars by NASA scientists. It was the culmination of a seven month mission to get InSight safely in place before it begins a two year mission, to explore the crust of Mars. Talking to USA Today, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said the atmosphere at NASA was “… intense, and you could feel the emotion…” as InSight finally found its target after what is being called “seven minutes of terror.”
These last few moments of the landing mission were make or break for NASA. As the spacecraft took its final plunge to the planet’s surface, its heat shield had to cope with temperatures that rose to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Then, as the parachute designed to slow InSight’s decent at supersonic speed was released, a dozen retro-rockets deployed three shock-absorbing legs so that InSight could settle onto Mars’ surface. At any time in these final stages, one or more of the mechanisms could have failed, ending what was a billion dollar mission there and then. As the Popular Science website explains, “Mars has just enough atmosphere to set an incoming object on fire, and not enough to really slow it down. Landing anything there requires the utmost precision, planning, and an understanding of that pesky thing called physics. But the years of planning paid off.”
InSight will be the first spacecraft to concentrate on investigating what goes on beneath the surface of Mars. Despite previous investigations into the planet, scientists don’t yet know how big Mars’ core is, what it is made of, or if even if the planet is still active. NASA hopes that InSight will provide information to explain all of these things. To keep itself powered up, InSight, once the dust it disturbed on landing has settled, will need to deploy solar arrays to collect Martian sunlight, and so keep itself charged for the duration of the project. Once it has acquired sufficient power, the craft’s robotic arm will be activated and used to operate a number of scientific instruments. Amongst many tasks, these instruments will take the planet’s temperature and measure the extent of Mars’ slight wobble as it orbits.
InSight is also equipped with a seismometer, which will use the waves created by Mars-quakes and meteorite strikes to build a 3-D picture of the planet’s interior. Bruce Banerdt, the mission’s lead scientist, told USA Today, “That is the goal of the InSight mission, to actually map out the inside of Mars in three dimensions so that we understand the inside of Mars as well as we have come to understand the surface of Mars.”
The ultimate aim of InSight’s adventure is to provide an understanding of how planets such as Mars and Earth first evolved within our solar system. As Banerdt explains, “When we look at the crust of Mars, that’s a snapshot into the past, of what the crust of the Earth might have looked like 4.5 billion years ago…”
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.