Exploring the Red Planet

NASA’s InSight vehicle lands on Mars, prepares to collect tectonic and orbital data


This Tuesday, Nov. 27, NASA’s InSight rover landed on Mars after a seven-month, 300 million-mile flight from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The flat, sand-filled crater it landed in will serve as the vehicle’s base of operations for the next two years as it deploys instruments to study Mars’ deep interior. This marks the eighth time NASA has landed an artificial object on the red planet.

Where previous Mars explorations focused on collecting photos and static data of the planet’s surface, InSight will provide dynamic readings of its internal temperature, seismic activity, and orbital activity (or “wobble”). The “InSight” moniker is shorthand for “Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport.” Together, these datasets will help determine the material composition of Mars’ crust, mantle, and core, and how these layers developed over time.

So far, InSight has captured two dusty photos of its Mars landing location and relayed them back to ground stations on Earth. Now, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is working to determine the rover’s exact coordinates as well as the proportions of the crater it resides in. Next week, the vehicle’s stowed robotic arm will extend to capture higher-resolution images of the Martian terrain. These images will determine the best spots to deploy the heat probe, seismometer, and Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment (RISE) hardware. Initial readings are expected in March 2019.

Ultimately, InSight will provide a glimpse into how Mars and similar terrestrial planets (and exoplanets) form and evolve over millennia. This is important for understanding potentially habitable conditions outside of Earth, and helps illuminate the mysterious history of our solar system.

The InSight rover wasn’t alone on its journey—NASA saw the launch as an opportunity for a secondary mission testing miniaturized communications equipment in deep space. Twin briefcase-sized satellites called Mars Cube One (MarCO-A and B) launched on the same rocket as InSight to carry out a number of communication and navigation flight experiments. This will be the first time a communications cubesat has operated in another planet’s orbit.

NASA’s next mission to Mars will is slated for July 2020, when the agency launches its Mars 2020 Rover. Earlier this month, NASA chose Jezero Crater as the landing site for the vehicle, which will search the planet for signs of past microbial life and collect rock and topsoil samples from its surface.

Photo Credit: NASA

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