“The echoes of your past vibrate through space,
And secrets lie beneath your broken skin;
The cracks and rimless craters on your face,
Reveal to us what’s hidden deep within.
Now frozen underground in super lakes,
Under a pitted surface lined with breaks;
A reservoir of life within our sight,
To reach for when we know the time is right.”
-Plains of Paradise, Samuel Illingworth
Date: November 26, 2018
Time: 19:52:59 UTC
Location: Elysium Planitia, Mars
Touchdown on Mars! Humanity may be years away from setting foot on Mars, but the Red Planet is turning into something of a monument park for our species all the same. Rovers and landers dot the surface, and orbiters rule the skies above. After a six-month journey across hundreds of millions of miles of deep space, NASA’s InSight spacecraft—a mission nearly ten years and close to $1 billion in the making—landed successfully on the surface of Mars, marking the eighth time in human history of our successful landing on the Red Planet.
InSight has joined the growing fleet, and it will be less concerned with what happens on or above Mars and more with what goes on within it.
In the final moments of the spacecraft’s descent, the mission control room at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory was silent as updates on InSight’s status blared over the PA system: “Altitude 300 meters… 200 meters… 80 meters… 60 meters … 50 meters, constant velocity 37 meters… 30 meters … 20 meters… 17 meters… standing by for touchdown… Touchdown confirmed! InSight is on the surface of Mars!”
Immediately, the engineers in mission control burst into applause.
The name InSight is an acronym for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport. (The selective capitalizations are, in fairness, a step up from 2004’s Mercury MESSENGER mission, which stood for MErcury Surface Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging mission.)
InSight’s objective was to place a stationary lander equipped with a seismometer and measure heat transfer with a heat probe to study the planet’s early geological evolution. This could bring new understanding of the Solar System’s terrestrial planets—Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars—and Earth’s Moon.
InSight has sent signals to Earth indicating that its solar panels are open and collecting sunlight. NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter relayed the signals, which were received on Earth at about 1:30 AM UTC. Solar array deployment ensures the spacecraft can recharge its batteries each day.
InSight‘s primary objective is to study the earliest evolutionary history of the processes that shaped Mars. By studying the size, thickness, density and overall structure of Mars’ core, mantle and crust, as well as the rate at which heat escapes from the planet’s interior, InSight will provide a glimpse into the evolutionary processes of all of the rocky planets in the inner Solar System.
The rocky inner planets share a common ancestry that begins with a process called accretion. As the body increases in size, its interior heats up and evolves to become a terrestrial planet, containing a core, mantle and crust. Despite this common ancestry, each of the terrestrial planets is later shaped and molded through a poorly understood process called differentiation. InSight mission’s goal is to improve the understanding of this process and, by extension, terrestrial evolution, by measuring the planetary building blocks shaped by this differentiation: a terrestrial planet’s core, mantle and crust.
The mission will determine if there is any seismic activity, measure the rate of heat flow from the interior, estimate the size of Mars’ core and whether the core is liquid or solid. This data would be the first of its kind for Mars. It is also expected that frequent meteor air bursts will provide additional seismo-acoustic signals to probe the interior of Mars.
The mission’s secondary objective is to conduct an in-depth study of geophysics, tectonic activity and the effect of meteorite impacts on Mars, which could provide knowledge about such processes on Earth. Measurements of crust thickness, mantle viscosity, core radius and density, and seismic activity should result in an accuracy increase of 3× to 10× compared with current data.
The mission will take three months to deploy and commission the science instruments.
It is to NASA’s credit that its map of the landing site includes the location of Martian landers that have come before—Viking 1, Viking 2, Pathfinder, Spirit, Opportunity, Phoenix, Curiosity.
At present, Curiosity is still at work; Opportunity may be, though NASA has had no contact with the old rover since last June. InSight is expected to work for at least two years, after which it too will go silent. Its time on Mars will be comparatively fleeting, but the knowledge it sends home about Earth’s closest planetary kin will endure.
By, Aditi Gupta
Computer Science Engineering Student