In May, NASA’s InSight was launched to Mars, and on November 26th, monitored by our own Jet Propulsion Laboratory, it landed. Seven months of travel was validated by a signal the rover sent and a photo of Mars’ rocky surface. Scientists at Mission Control at JPL just down the street let out whoops of joy at the message.
“It was intense, and you could feel the emotion,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who was in the control room at JPL during the landing, told Space.com. “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. It’s very different being here than watching it on TV, by far. I can tell you that for sure now that I’ve experienced both.”
The entry, descent and landing- more popularly known as the seven minutes of terror- is the most precarious challenge for NASA rover missions. Only 40% of rovers sent to Mars have gotten past this step, the others either exploding in the thin atmosphere or skipping against it entirely. When this happens, hundreds of millions of dollars and years of work are rendered a waste. All in seven minutes.
“We hit the Martian atmosphere at 12,300 mph, and the whole sequence to touching down on the surface took only 6½ minutes,” Tom Hoffman of JPL, InSight project manager told CNN. “During that short span of time, InSight had to autonomously perform dozens of operations and do them flawlessly — and by all indications, that is exactly what our spacecraft did.”
The landing stage has to be incredibly exact. If InSight had landed at an angle over 12 degrees, it would have heated up and exploded. That’s what happened in 1999, when a 125 million dollar rover exploded when it entered Mars’ atmosphere at 16 degrees. If it goes under, it bounces off the atmosphere and floats away to the endless reach of space. And the crew can’t remote control the rover real time either- it takes about twenty minutes for messages to be transmitted from InSight to Earth. The machine has to do it all on it’s own. And at 2:54 pm ET, it did.
But what is this all for? Something even more exciting- InSight will be the first rover to learn about the inside of Mars. Curiosity, the last rover to land in 2012, analyzed dirt samples that hardly went over an inch deep. InSight is drilling 16 feet down to learn about the core of Mars and how much it wobbles as it revolves around the sun.
“That is the goal of the InSight mission — to actually map out the inside of Mars in three dimensions, so that we understand the inside of Mars as well as we have come to understand the surface of Mars,” InSight principal investigator Bruce Banerdt, also of JPL told a press conference.
Progress from now will be much more exciting, but also much slower. For the next two years, InSight will explore the depths of Mars and tell us what lies beneath Mars’ elusive red surface.