Cheers went up at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California as NASA’s InSight lander touched the surface of the red planet after a six-month-long journey.
The spacecraft, launched from California on 8 May 2018, successfully completed its 300-million-mile voyage to Mars on Monday, 26 November 2018. Insight has already been busy, sending us amazing pictures of the planet's surface and a Martian sunset!
We already know a lot about Mars-- that it is a rocky planet, and has the largest volcano and deepest canyon in our solar system. It also has unpredictable weather patterns. No evidence of life in the past or present has been found yet, but it is suggested that Mars might have had water in the past like Earth.
So, what are scientists hoping to achieve with this new mission?
Missions to Mars
In the late 20th century, the desire to learn the secrets of the Universe led many countries to send exploratory missions to Mars and beyond.
NASA's Mariner 9 was the first spacecraft to successfully orbit Mars in 1971. Mariner 9 photographed Phobos, one of the moons of Mars. It also took pictures of Mars that led to the assumption that there might have been water present on the red planet. In 1975, the Viking program was successful in launching the first spacecrafts, Viking 1 and Viking 2, that landed on Mars. NASA's goal through these missions was to learn more about the chemical composition of Martian soil as well as test for any signs of life.
One of the more recent projects of NASA, the Curiosity rover, landed on Mars in 2012. It was designed to look for conditions on the red planet that might be able to host life. NASA is already exploring the possibility of creating a settlement on Mars as we had written here. Don't miss our interview with one of the scientists who designed Curiosity, here.
The Goal Of Insight
Through InSight, NASA hopes to understand how rocky planets form and evolve. Insight's heat probe can drill 16 feet into the ground to measure temperature as well as record how well heat is conducted in the Martian soil. It is also carrying a device that reflects signals sent from the Earth -- this information can be used to infer how the planet's North Pole wobbles as it moves around the Sun and whether Mars's core is solid or liquid.
Another goal that NASA hopes to accomplish is understanding the movement of Martian tectonic plates. Just as on Earth, the movement of these plates on Mars often causes marsquakes. Insight's seismometer will record these quakes as well as meteorite impact, dust storms and landslides as each of these generate waves that travel through Martian soil too.
Along with InSight, NASA launched two twin probes to Mars in May. Unlike InSight, the MarCO project was not intended to land on Mars. Instead, the twins were designed to send data of the InSight's landing back to Earth from the Martian orbit.
The probes, MarCO-A and MarCO-B, are only the size of a briefcase and are now coming back towards Earth. MarCO-A and MarCO-B were not attached to InSight during the journey. These probes are low-cost and small, but they were still able to relay information about InSight's landing back to NASA in only eight minutes!