It’s now been over two months since against all odds, NASA’s InSight landed safely on the Red Planet, demonstrating a massive triumph for human achievement.
Although the entire journey from Earth to Mars lasted 6 months, all the drama unfolded in the last 7 minutes of travel – as the probe prepared to enter the Martian atmosphere and land. NASA scientists were on their edge of their seats in anticipation, the number of risks involved in touchdown greater than ever before. Landing rovers on Mars only has a 40% success rate, so naturally scientists were apprehensive about whether or not their life’s work would go to waste, so much so that NASA coined the 80-mile plunge from the top of the atmosphere to the surface of Mars the ‘7 Minutes of Terror’.
The process of landing the lander was extremely complicated. The first risk lay in re-entry into the planet’s atmosphere. Upon greeting the thin, hot Martian atmosphere, the lander had to turn around so its shielding could absorb the searing heat generated as a result of entering the atmosphere at such high velocities. If it didn’t enter at the precise angle of 12°, the entire lander would have been incinerated within seconds. Thankfully, InSight survived entry into the atmosphere and was able to begin its descent to the surface. It had to slow itself down from 12,000 miles per hour to rest in a matter of minutes; an operation achieved by deploying a sizeable parachute. The spacecraft then detected when it was 1 mile above the surface and released its parachute, free-falling to the surface. On the way down it released shock-absorbing legs, ready to come into contact with the rocky surface of Mars. 12 descent engines worked to decelerate InSight so that it could land smoothly. If any of these mechanisms didn’t work flawlessly on the day, the mission would have been over before it had even begun.
InSight will be probing deeper into Mars than any lander before. The main aims of the mission are to gain a better understanding of the formation and evolution of the Red Planet, as well as to measure the current tectonic activity levels. In the past, rovers have only looked at surface features such as volcanoes, rocks and soil in order to uncover information about the planet’s history. This time, NASA are attempting to look deep into the crust, mantle and core in order to unearth the nature of the planet’s interior. NASA are looking to measure the planet’s ‘vital signs’: its pulse, temperature and reflexes. The craft has been equipped with several new probes to help it achieve its mission. It has been fitted with a seismometer, which will listen to the pulse of the planet by recording the waves travelling through the interior of the planet. It has a sophisticated temperature sensor which is able to determine the amount of heat flowing out of Mars. Finally, it has a probe able to measure its position on the planet with great precision. This will help scientists understand the orbital motion of the planet, in turn telling us more about the internal structure of the planet. Scientists hope to use this information to understand how rocky bodies evolve to become massive planets.
The significance of the success of this mission isn’t to be underestimated. The number of risks and complications overcome by rigorous mathematical analysis is a true testament to the advances we have achieved in space technology. Furthermore, InSight had no human interference once it was in space. All of its controls were pre-programmed before its launch, meaning that if something unexpected occurred during its journey, NASA scientists would have had no way to fix it from Earth and would have had to watch all their hard work literally be torn apart. Fortunately, everything went to plan, and InSight is already relaying vital information about the red planet back to Earth.
By Zahin Ali
image source: https://mars.nasa.gov