Exciting InSight into the Red Planet

Eric Sorge ‘19
EE Co-Managing Editor

The InSight Mars lander touched down on its new home just before 3 PM on November 26th, completing a rapid descent through the Martian atmosphere and its nearly seven month journey across 300 million miles of space. Cheers erupted from Mission Control in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and across the nation when signals finally arrived confirming the landing; with this first successful landing of a robot on mars since the Curiosity rover in 2012, there is much to be excited about.

“It was intense, and you could feel the emotion,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, a member of the InSight team at JPL. “It was very, very quiet when it was time to be quiet and of course very celebratory with every little new piece of information that was received.”

When it was launched on May 5th, InSight was accompanied by two suitcase-sized CubeSats called “MarCos” that were engineered to relay real-time information back to Earth regarding the spacecraft’s status as it approached the Red Planet.
However, even at the speed of light, signals take several minutes to travel between Mars and Earth. With Insight’s ultimate time from entering the atmosphere and landing on Mars only being about a nerve-wracking 6.5 minutes, instantaneous communication to control or even monitor the final moments of the journey is impossible.

Therefore, InSight’s entire landing sequence, from entry at over 12,000 miles per hour, to the eventual soft landing, aided by a heat shield, supersonic parachute, and retro-rockets, had to be programmed well in advance. As the most vital part of the voyage ensued on the 26th, scientists could only wait for the MarCos’ signal that InSight had landed and been deployed as planned; a feat only 40% of Mars missions have accomplished.

With InSight safely on the ground in a flat region slightly north of the equator known as Elysium Planitia and images of the craft’s surroundings arriving, the most stressful part of the mission is complete. Now, InSight’s team can begin to focus on the lander’s unique task of testing the Martian interior to help uncover the mystery of the planet’s formation.

InSight principle investigator Bruce Banerdt of JPL said to NASA, “Landing was thrilling, but I’m looking forward to the drilling… our engineering and science teams will hit the ground running, beginning to plan where to deploy our science instruments.”

Within the next few months, the main scientific instruments of the mission, the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structures (SEIS) and Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3), will be deployed. These tools will grant us new and perhaps surprising insight into the structure of Mars, and clues as to how the rocky planets, including our own, formed and evolved.
NASA explained the overarching goal of the mission. “InSight will address a fundamental issue of solar system science, not just specific questions about a single planet. By studying Mars, InSight would illuminate the earliest evolution of rocky planets, including Earth.”

Additionally, with bolstered optimism for future missions, NASA claims that we are one step closer to putting humans on Mars in the 2030’s.

The famous “seven minutes of terror” culminated in relief with the MarCos working flawlessly and InSight touching down as planned, and as senior Dan Pitagora said, “The InSight mission is a landmark success… [It] unlocked many doors [for discovery].”

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