By Douglas V. Gibbs
Author, Speaker, Instructor, Radio Host

I am sort of a little bit of a science geek.  The planets of our solar system, and what may lie beyond, have always been fascinating to me.  I am an avid science fiction reader, and I love the show MARS on National Geographic channel.  With that in mind, I’ve been following our latest Mars exploits here in the present day with much enthusiasm.  That all said, I am happy to report that another Mars mission has successfully landed on the Red Planet.

The thing about Mars is that it takes a while to get there (this trip was about seven months) and every thing has to go perfect.  One error, and the landing becomes nothing but a bunch of scrap metal lying on the red sand.  Mars, for example, has only 1% of Earth’s atmosphere, so there’s nothing to slow down something trying to land on the surface.  Landings require a lot of reverse thrusting, parachutes, usually a bouncy bouncy balloon-laden landing, and in InSight’s case, strong legs to finally rest upon.  The engineers prepared the spacecraft to land during a dust storm if need be.

The latest NASA mars mission is called “InSight,” and the landing was performed beautifully, and the vehicle landed safely on the surface of our neighboring planet.  This mission, however, is like none other we’ve attempted.  Rather than study the surface of the planet, the InSight mission is all about studying the planet’s deep interior.  The mission will last about two years investigating what is underneath the surface, and perhaps give us a glimpse of the planet’s building blocks, and perhaps even a slight peep at Mars’ history.

MarCO, two orbiting spacecraft about the size of a suitcase, are satellites that will help convey the messages sent from InSight.  These orbiting craft are also the eyes in the sky for NASA in relation to this mission from above the surface of Mars.

“We’ve studied Mars from orbit and from the surface since 1965, learning about its weather, atmosphere, geology and surface chemistry,” said Lori Glaze, acting director of the Planetary Science Division in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “Now we finally will explore inside Mars and deepen our understanding of our terrestrial neighbor as NASA prepares to send human explorers deeper into the solar system.”

Science Magazine reports:

Although hurdles remain to achieve operating status, the lander is well positioned to begin to take Mars’s heartbeat in the next few months. 

“It was intense, and you could feel the emotion,” says NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine in Washington, D.C. 

NASA was able to quickly confirm the landing thanks to a flawless performance by two tiny satellites that accompanied the lander. These CubeSats caught and relayed InSight’s signal to Earth, along with a bonus: a first picture of the terrain where the lander will place its two instruments.

When landing, there is a window where Earth has no control, nor any contact, with the interplanetary vehicle.  The spacecraft must be programmed ahead of time to take care of the maneuvers itself, and if any of the timing is off, the whole mission could be lost.  InSight robotically guided itself through the landing, outside of a few last minute tweaks by the entry, descent and landing team to the algorithm that guides the lander to the surface.

The landing itself is a tricky maneuver. NASA engineers don’t call it “seven minutes of terror” for nothing. In less time than it takes to hard-boil an egg, InSight slowed from 12,300 mph to 5 mph before it gently landed on the surface of Mars, according to NASA. 

“While most of the country was enjoying Thanksgiving with their family and friends, the InSight team was busy making the final preparations for Monday’s landing,” said Tom Hoffman of JPL, InSight’s project manager. “Landing on Mars is difficult and takes a lot of personal sacrifices, such as missing the traditional Thanksgiving, but making InSight successful is well worth the extraordinary effort.”

Getting to, and landing on, Mars is such a difficult endeavor that only 40% of missions sent to the Red Planet by any agency have been successful.  

Now that the craft has landed, it will be two or three months before all of the equipment, including the spacecrafts’s solar arrays, are in place for the next part of the mission.  As all of that is going on, mission scientists will photograph what can be seen from the lander’s perspective and monitor the environment. Science data isn’t expected until March.
The landing sight was Elysium Planitia, called “the biggest parking lot on Mars” by astronomers. Because it won’t be roving over the surface, the landing site was an important determination. This spot is open, flat safe and boring, which is what the scientists want for a stationary two-year mission.  The location is also along the Martian equator, bright and warm enough to power the lander’s solar array year-round.

Once the mission gets going we will have a chance to learn about Mars’ internal activity like seismology and the planet’s wobble as the sun and its moons tug on Mars.
“Landing on Mars is exciting, but scientists are looking forward to the time after InSight lands,” said Lori Glaze of NASA. “Once InSight is settled on the Red Planet and its instruments are deployed, it will start collecting valuable information about the structure of Mars’ deep interior — information that will help us understand the formation and evolution of all rocky planets, including the one we call home.”
Among the hopes connected to this mission is that evidence for water on Mars is found, and perhaps even some form of life, no matter how rudimentary.
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