Mars InSight makes a safe landing on the Red Planet
A new Mars exploration vehicle touched down safely on the surface of the red planet on November 26th and the Green Bank Telescope was the first to know the landing had gone as planned by NASA. Due to its sensitivity, the GBT was able to confirm the landing even before NASA specialists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory knew it had happened.
InSight is an acronym for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport. Unlike previous probes designed to observe and experiment with surface features, InSight will seek to explore the inner workings of the planet, looking at things like the size of the core, what it’s made of and whether it’s solid or liquid, the structure and thickness of the crust and how warm the interior of the planet is and how much heat is flowing through. Scientists also want to know how tectonically active Mars is today given that all of the many volcanos on the planet appear to be dormant. Fun fact, a Martian Sol or day is equivalent to about 1 Earth day plus 37 minutes; InSight will conduct its mission for one Martian year, or about 687 Earth days.
Rachel Slank is currently working on her PhD in Space and Planetary Science at the University of Arkansas. Her studies focus mainly on the interaction between the Martian atmosphere and the soil. She gave a presentation on the InSight mission at the Green Bank Observatory on Monday, prior to the expected landing time for the probe. She says Mars is the perfect planet for gathering the data that InSight was designed for.
“Because it’s not too big and it’s not too small so it actually allows the record to be preserved for us to look at in the subsurface,” she said. “And it will give us an insight into not only how Mars formed, but how Earth formed and Venus and maybe even how Mercury was formed. And we know it has low levels for geologic activity going on, but this lander can help reveal just how active Mars is.”
Rachel explained the process of landing InSight on Mars.
“Right now it is currently speeding towards Mars at 13,000 miles per hour,” she said, “and it needs to hit the atmosphere at 12 degrees. If it goes any steeper it’s going to burn up on entry and we’re going to lose InSight; if it’s any shallower, it’s going to bounce off the atmosphere and go the wrong direction and we’re going to lose InSight.”
“After it hits the atmosphere, it’s going to slow down to about 1000 miles per hour in 2 minutes. Then it’s going to release a parachute and the parachute’s going to slow it down even further. Then 3 mini bombs are going to kick off the bottom of the heat shield and let InSight release and then mere seconds before it hits the ground these 3 little boosters [rockets] are going to fire up to catch it and slowly let it land softly.”
This process takes roughly 6 to 7 minutes during which NASA will have no communication with InSight because it takes longer than 7 minutes to transmit data back to Earth from Mars. That’s why this period of time is widely known as the “seven minutes of terror”.
A feature called the Elysium Planitia was chosen as the site for InSight to touch down. Rachel said the site which includes 3 volcanoes, is a very flat area covered with a layer of ancient lava and close to the equator. She said they wanted a “boring” site without too many obstacles for the probe to do its best work.
While waiting for the landing, GBO staff led some family-friendly activities. The most popular of these was the challenge to Build Your Own Mars Lander. The “payload” for each lander was a raw egg. Teams were given a virtual 100.00 to purchase materials to protect the payload, ranging from string, cotton balls and shredded paper to the more expensive items such as balloons and plastic shopping bags. Once constructed, each lander was dropped from 10 feet off the ground. The landers that used the shopping bag as a parachute tended to fare better, landing with a soft thump rather than a loud egg-cracking thud heard with some of the other designs.
InSight was launched from Earth on May 5th, 2018. The touchdown of InSight was confirmed a little before 3pm Monday afternoon. On Tuesday, NASA released a picture InSight had beamed back of its landing site even as the dust from the landing was still settling, preparing to settle in for many experiments to come.