Digging Deep Into Mars: InSight Begins Its Mission


Maximilian Looft, Author

Six months and 22 days. For nearly seven months, people — scientists and engineers at NASA, astronomers, and even everyday people — have waited for InSight to land.

On May 5, the “Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport” (InSight) launched from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base, which not only marked the West Coast’s first launch of an interplanetary mission, but Earth’s first mission to Mars in four years.

This plan was similar to others yet vastly different. InSight is not a rover, but a lander. Its mission is not to explore the outer layer of the red planet like Curiosity and Opportunity did, but to remain in one location and study the interior of the planet.

Not only that, but InSight had two very small companions hitching a ride: the twin MarCO CubeSats. These two cube satellites are a major engineering feat both for being the first deep space cube satellites, and also for being barely larger than a backpack.

Now, nearly seven months later, after traveling approximately 300 million miles (458 million kilometers), both InSight and the MarCOs have made it.

On Nov. 26, the confirmation signal from InSight was sent to NASA at 12:52 p.m. MST. It had landed successfully at the Elysium Planitia landing site.

“Today, we successfully landed on Mars for the eighth time in human history,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “InSight will study the interior of Mars and will teach us valuable science as we prepare to send astronauts to the moon and later to Mars.”

Operations are underway. By extending its robotic arm, taking images of its surroundings, and sending images back to NASA, scientists will study where best to make use of the drill.

After two to three months of observation, the two main instruments of InSight will be deployed: the Seismic Experiment of Interior Structure (SEIS) and the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3).

The SEIS will listen closely for any sort of shakes or tremors that could be a result of Marsquakes, meteorites impacting with the planet, and even dust storms. The HP3 will drill 16 feet into the ground and study the heat from within the planet so scientists can learn how heat flows within the planet.

Both of these tools can help scientists figure out what the interior of Mars consists of and can provide many clues as to how the planet formed. This will be useful for learning not only the history of the planet, but also how planets form.

“Every Mars landing is daunting, but now with InSight safely on the surface we get to do a unique kind of science on Mars,” said Michael Watkins, director of the Jet Propulsion Lab. “The experimental MarCO CubeSats have also opened a new door to smaller planetary spacecraft. The success of these two unique missions is a tribute to the hundreds of talented engineers and scientists who put their genius and labor into making this a great day.”

Although its mission could be extended, the plan is for InSight to work for two continuous Earth years, which equals one Mars year plus 40 Mars days, or until Nov. 24, 2020.