Science

Mars InSight Seeks New Discoveries

“Touchdown confirmed!”

For the eighth time, NASA has successfully landed on Mars.

After many tense yet hopeful moments, the jubilant reaction to the landing signal being reached on Earth was broadcast live around the world over the Internet. Launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base on May 5, 2018, the probe made the nearly 300 million mile journey to its destination.

After a trip of almost seven months, the Mars InSight probe found its way to Elysium Planitia, a flat plain of lava which will be the place for the mission to be conducted. The safe touchdown was confirmed at approximately noon Pacific time on November 26. It took the spacecraft about six and a half minutes to go from 12,300 mph (19,8000 km/h) to its final position resting near the Martian equator.

Also launched on the same rocket were two experimental cube satellites named Mars Cube One (MarsCO). These were the first CubeSats launched into deep space. Their purpose was to conduct some communication and navigation tests before being set in place to receive data on the descent and landing of the InSight Lander. The signal was then relayed to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

Now that the lander has been flawlessly deployed, it can charge its systems using its two decagonal solar panels. Once all of the onboard systems have been verified as fully functional and intact, which could take a couple of months, it can begin its tasks. The mission is planned to take almost two years. However, if missions like the Curiosity Rover are any indication, the mission could extend a lot further, depending on how useful the data is that it continues to gather.

But this mission is a bit different from the Mars missions of the past.

A different kind of mission

The previous seven successful missions to the Red Planet have been to determine if life ever arose there, study its climate, or explore its geography and geology. In terms of geology, all scientists have been able to research has been mostly the surface, such as soil and surface features like mountains and valleys.

InSight, on the other hand, looks to go deeper. Designed off the successful Lockheed-Martin lander used for the Phoenix mission to study ground ice, the purpose of this mission is to study under the surface down to the core. Mars is less geologically active than Earth. That allows it to retain a more complete record of its history in its structural composition. By digging below the surface, analyzing the thickness and structure of the crust, mantle, and core, and measuring the rate of heat escaping the interior of the planet, scientists hope to learn more about how celestial bodies such as the Earth, moon, Venus, and Mercury may have developed.

For those studying geology, this is an exciting time. But what does it mean to those who aren’t so interested in xenogeology?

A stepping stone

NASA has four goals when it comes to robotic Mars exploration. The first is to determine whether or not life ever arose on Mars. The second is to characterize the climate of the Red Planet. The third goal is to characterize its geology.

This leads us to the fourth goal: Preparing for the human exploration of Mars.

Studying the deep geology is the next logical step in preparing for Martian exploration and colonization. NASA has been developing plans for sending humans to Mars for a long time. And they’re not the only ones. SpaceX has a goal of sending their first payload in 2022. In spite of claims of questionable practices, the Mars One project appears to still be moving forward on their colonization plan. Other space agencies, such as the European Space Agency, are also eyeing manned missions in the not too distant future.

InSight is a lot more than just a chance to satisfy scientific curiosity. Not only can its discoveries shed some more light on what we know of our own world and its makeup, what it marks and what it is built to discover make up a huge stepping stone toward human exploration and colonization of another planet, beyond our own pale, blue dot.

Daniel C. Handley

Dan Handley was raised a Trekkie, fell in love with "Star Wars" at an early age, and became obsessed with comic book superheroes. He spent his youth dreaming of how to get real superpowers, starships, and so on.

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