InSight lands on Mars

After months in space and a truly harrowing entry to Mars’ atmosphere, NASA’s InSight probe gently touched down on Mars.

The Insight probe — the full name of which is actually Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport — touched down safely on Mars’ Elysium Planitia at 7:52pm on the evening of Monday November 26, making it the eighth successful unmanned mission to Mars in the history of mankind.

WATCH: The moment InSight touched down:

At at a post-landing briefing at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California Insight’s Project Manager Tom Hoffman remarked “I’m very, very happy that it looks like we have an incredibly safe and boring looking landing location”.

Elysium Planitia, located in the northern hemisphere and near the equator of the red planet, is a soft sandy plain on the Martian surface — a perfect spot for InSight to carry out its life purpose: to study the geology of Mars’ core.

Essentially an interplanetary geologist, the InSight probe is distinct from the famous Mars Rovers, in that the probe will remain in place for the duration of its mission. It will dig deep into the Martian crust, searching for so called marsquakes and drawing a picture of what lies beneath the surface from the data it collects.

“In the coming months and years the history books will be rewritten about the interior of Mars” Michael Watkins, JPL’S Director predicted in the press briefing.

Before the mission can officially start, more definitive checks will be carried out to assure the spacecraft’s on-board equipment and mechanics have survived the tough entry into Mars’ hostile atmosphere.

InSight entered the planet’s atmosphere at 12,300 miles per hour and slowed itself down to a walking pace in around seven minutes. A combination of rockets and parachutes allowed the craft to land safely on the plain, which has been described as being as horizontal as a car park in the famously flat Kansas.

credit to Nasa - Scott

NASA’s probe InSight. (Photo Credit: NASA)

The landing concluded a journey which began in May 2018 and 300 million miles away on planet Earth. The Insight probe was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on the May 5, 2018, from an Atlas V-401 Rocket, making it the first Mars’ mission launched from the west coast of the United States as opposed to Florida on the east coast.

 

InSight was closely followed by two NASA CubeSats — miniaturised satellites about the size of a briefcase — called Mars Cube One or MarCO. These types of satellites are easily and relatively cheaply sent up to orbit earth but this mission marks their first use deep in our solar system, offering the possibility of improved communications and data collection infrastructure in deep space.

Probes over People

The landing is great news but looking at the bigger picture of deep space exploration you might be moved to ask — where are all the people?

It’s a good question and it is one that is getting asked more and more of late. Since the discontinuation of the shuttle program in 2011, NASA’s operations have become a lot more geared toward unmanned scientific exploration.

Think of deep space milestones of late; the curiosity rover on Mars, the New Horizons probe responsible for beautiful close ups of the dwarf planet Pluto, and now Mars’ InSight.

Since the last mission to the Moon in the 1970’s there have been no humans beyond low-Earth orbit. As we approach the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s historic first landing on the Moon and see private companies like SpaceX inch ever closer to perfecting their own space launch systems, the question regarding when humans will next explore deep space in person will become central to U.S space policy.

Under the current administration NASA has received a slight increase in funding to just under US$20 billion — a rather modest amount as federal agencies go — and outlined goals for a permanent presence on the moon as the main deep space goal acting as a way station for an eventual trip to Mars.

Credit to NASA

The hope is to station humans on Mars in the future (Photo Credit: NASA)

The fundamentals of these plans pre-dated the Trump administration as the space agency developed a new Space launch system and deep space craft called Orion.

Some outlandish proposals have been put forward by the Trump administration, such as the so called “Space Force”— an American military presence in space. The idea has been met with derision, with Former U.S. Navy Captain and retired Astronaut Mark Kelly tweeting that it was ‘a dumb idea”.

However, NASA’s official line remains true to the goal of putting humans on the red planet.

Only exploring low earth orbit might seem like having stayed in the shallow end of the pool but it has been responsible for falling costs more reusable space technology and so more access to space.

NASA’s Administrator Jim Bridenstine reckoned optimistically in InSight’s post landing press conference when asked will humans will get there; “I’m going with the mid 2030’s”.

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