Earlier this year, NASA launched its long-awaited InSight Mission to Mars. InSight stands for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport. This means that NASA has equipped the InSight lander with technology that will allow us to study the planet’s history in geological evolution, as well as its internal structure and composition. InSight will deploy a seismometer, burrow a heat probe into the surface of the planet, and preform radio science experiments to learn more about the planet’s core. This could bring us new understanding about many of the planets in our galaxy, including our own.
The excitement over the educational possibilities of this mission is apparent. However, the success of this mission is still not guaranteed. The last successful touchdown on the Red Planet took place on August 5th, 2012 when the Curiosity Mars rover made its initial contact. Since then, the InSight lander was scheduled to follow Curiosity in 2016. Due to complications, the initial timeline has been expanded and finally, one week from now, the InSight landing is scheduled to take place. After two years of improvements and alterations by Lockheed Martin, the mission costs have reached 830 million US Dollars making the stakes pretty high for this mission to succeed.
In order for the lander to make it through Mars’ atmosphere and arrive safely on the surface, there are several steps that have to take place in a narrow window of time. This window was known as the “7minutes of terror” during the Curiosity Rover landing. First, the InSight will disconnect from its “cruise stage” which has propelled and guided it safely through space until this moment. Minutes later, InSight will hit the Martian atmosphere. It must enter at a precise twelve-degree angle. If it is too steep it will melt and burn up in the atmosphere. If it is too shallow, InSight will bounce off and be unable to penetrate it. While passing through, it must withstand 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit for two minutes and once it is 10 miles from the surface, it will deploy a parachute. Shortly after, six pyrotechnic devices will deploy in order to remove the lander’s heat shield. Three more explosions later, the legs will deploy. Then it will send radar pulses to gauge altitude and speed.
When InSight is finally one miles from the surface of the planet, decent engines will deploy, and the parachute will be disconnected. In order to avoid being caught in the parachute, the lander will rotate quickly at this stage and then right itself in order to make contact on the Red Planet surface. When the legs touch the ground, the engine will immediately shut off and NASA scientists will breath a collective sigh of relief. This entire process will take about 6 minutes. If you want to stay up to date with the progress of the landing, follow along online! You can also watch in person at locations listed on NASA’s website listed below! On November 26th, around 3pm you can watch history in the making and watch the nail-biting touch down of the InSight landing on the surface of Mars!