NASA’s InSight Lander touches down safely on Mars

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This illustration shows a simulated view of NASA’s InSight lander descending on its parachute toward the surface of Mars. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Space enthusiasts watched anxiously as NASA’s InSight lander touched down on Mars today. It took the 3 legged robot like spacecraft over six months and a 300-million-mile (458-million-kilometer) journey from Earth.

The landing was a very tense moment for the team at NASA. As history has shown it is very tough to land a spacecraft on Mars. Whether it is landing a probe on the Martian surface, orbiting the planet or just conducting a flyby, only 40% of previous missions have been successful.

NASA has nicknamed the nail-biting landing sequence on Mars, “the seven minutes of terror.”  But much to everyone’s relief InSight landed successfully! The spacecraft hurled through the ultra-thin Martian atmosphere at 12,300 miles per hour using a special heat shield to protect it from burning in the atmosphere. Then a huge parachute opened and 12 thrusters helped InSight slow down to 5 miles per hour to land safely on the red planet’s surface.

Credit: Statista https://www.statista.com/chart/6297/a-history-of-mars-missions/

What do we know about the InSight Lander?

This is a picture of the InSight Lander catching sun rays on the Martian surface on Nov. 26, 2018, the same day the spacecraft touched down on the Red Planet.

The $814 mln spacecraft is a self-sufficient robot. As soon as it landed it went to work. It spread its solar panels to pulls its own power from the sun. Next, it will take a week to set up its instruments. It is equipped with a series of instruments that will conduct experiments to learn more about what lies under the surface of the red planet- that is its core, mantle, and crust.  The lander has a robotic arm that will help carry out experiments. All the data will be relayed back to Earth. Unlike other Mars rovers, InSight will stay put and is designed to study the entire planet from just one spot.

 

How will InSight change what we know about Mars?

InSight is equipped with a self-hammering nail which will dig 16 feet beneath the surface to take Mars’s internal temperature. It will also capture the heat trapped deep inside Mars since the planet first formed. This will help scientists understand how Mars formed the way it did i.e. with volcanoes, mountain ranges and valleys.

InSight will also use a tool called a seismometer. The seismometer will measure waves from earthquakes on Mars, called marsquakes and meteorite strikes as they move through Mars. The speed of those waves changes depending on the material they’re traveling through. This will help scientists understand what the planet’s interior is made of.

Did you know the study of quakes on Earth or any other planet is called seismology?

Why is all this important?

This illustration shows a simulated view of NASA’s InSight lander descending on its parachute toward the surface of Mars.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

By figuring out the insides of Mars, scientists could learn how Mars and other rocky worlds, like the Earth and moon — formed and evolved over billions of years. Mars is geologically much less active than Earth, and so its interior is closer to being in its original state. All this is valuable information will also help future manned missions i.e. sending astronauts to the Moon and later to Mars.

InSight has a lot of work to do. It sent its first picture back within minutes of landing in its new home. The mission is designed to last one full Martian year, the equivalent of two Earth years.

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