Dozens of NASA scientists waited on pins and needles, staring at screens full of data, trusting that years of calculations and careful engineering and planning would bring a complex and delicate probe to a safe landing 300 million miles away on the surface of Mars.
“Touchdown” happened at 2:54 p.m. And so far, it seems like everything went smoothly.
That is no small feat.
NASA’s InSight probe, which will explore the planet’s interior, spent six months hurtling through space at thousands of miles per hour before rocketing into Mars’ thin atmosphere, heating up to a temperature that could melt steel, deploying parachutes, decelerating under crushing force and drifting gently to the surface.
Given those challenges, it’s unsurprising that more missions to Mars have failed than have been successful. So Monday’s landing was a relief after years of work and nearly $1 billion in U.S., French and German investment.
Expending that kind of effort and investment to explore a faraway rock might seem foolish. But the things we learn from Mars can teach us a lot about our own planet as well, not to mention the rest of our solar system and our place in it.
And InSight, in particular, is designed
to draw connections between Earth and Mars.
The probe — with the full name Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport — is expected to drill more deeply into the surface of Mars than ever before, or as much as 16 feet down if all goes according to plan.
At that depth, scientists can learn a lot about any activity in the planet’s interior, including “marsquakes” and seismic movement caused by meteor strikes or volcanic activity.
Other instruments will measure the precise position of the InSight probe on the planet’s surface to detect any wobbles in Mars’ rotation that could reveal secrets about the planet’s composition.
That data, combined with other information InSight is expected to provide, will help us better understand how rocky planets, like our own, form.
Also, InSight will measure any heat energy radiating from inside of Mars, which could help determine if water can stay liquid beneath the planet’s frigid surface. If so, it’s possible that rudimentary life could exist there. Human travel to Mars would
also be more feasible with liquid water present.
Of course, Monday’s landing, while a major accomplishment, is only a first step among many. Only over the next several days and weeks will we learn if InSight’s instruments are working correctly and it will take months and years for scientists to gather and sort through the data the probe sends back.
But it’s still worth celebrating another achievement in space exploration for the United States. It’s also another chance
for humanity to get a closer look at a world far beyond our own, and in the process to learn more about ourselves and our home.