I have written about our search for knowledge before, but this time the search takes us millions of miles away to the planet Mars. You remember we discussed the recent movies about a trip to Mars like “The Martian” and “Mission to Mars.” Those stories showed our efforts in the future to send humans to the red planet. In reality it will be some years before we can actually attempt that trip, but maybe not as long a time as first thought.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has sent robot rovers to Mars to give us our first on-the-ground views of what future travelers will find there. One of the most important discoveries our scientists hoped for was to find water on Mars. We have learned quite a bit so far, but it was decided that what is needed is to actually investigate what’s under the surface. Again, JPL scientists feel there is a good chance to find out how the planet formed. The problem becomes relatively easy to solve. Send up a new rover that has the capability using a seismograph to actually “feel” any interior motions beneath the surface.
Mars InSight is just that kind of vehicle. It was launched into space at 4:05 AM Pacific Daylight Time on May 5, 2018 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California atop an Atlas V-401 rocket. That was the first time a vehicle wasn’t launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The West Coast facility was available for the time-line the project needed so it was decided to use it. We know that NASA’s JPL likes to use acronyms for naming their space vehicles and InSight fits that model. InSight stands for Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy, and Heat Transport. The 300-million-mile journey took seven months for InSight to approach Mars.
On Monday November 26th InSight made its approach and landed on the surface of Mars at 11:52:59 a.m. Pacific Standard Time. Here is what NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstein said in a release posted on jp.nasa.gov ” 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. This accomplishment represents the ingenuity of America and our international partners, and it serves as a testament to the dedication and perseverance of our team. The best of NASA is yet to come, and it is coming soon.”
You might wonder how they managed to know what was going on so far away. They had communications with InSight because of two special mini-satellites. They are called Mars Cube One satellites (MarCO) and were launched right along with InSight on the same rocket. The JPL describes them this way: “CubeSats are a class of spacecraft based on a standardized small size and modular use of off-the-shelf technologies. Many have been made by college students, and hundreds have been launched into Earth orbit using extra payload mass available on launches of larger spacecraft. MarCO is the first attempt to send CubeSats to another planet.”
Now back to the landing itself. It’s not hard to see the joy and excitement of the scientists, engineers, and technicians in the control room when they received confirmation from InSight, through MarCo, that the soft landing was successful. The lander was already programmed to extend its solar panels to keep charging its batteries. A picture, actually a selfie, that InSight took shows it sitting on the Martian surface. It is hoped that this project will give us real-time data explaining more details about the physical aspects of the planet.
If we are going to send humans to Mars with the intention of landing and living on its surface then we need to know as much as possible concerning the planet’s geology, meteorology, and even its physical history. As the JPL retrieves pictures and data from InSight I will pass along their findings in this column.
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