The odds were against success – to date 58% of missions to the planet have failed, but those failures are lessons to be learnt from, and have led to an ever-increasing success rate (NASA also keeps an open jar of peanuts in mission control which has been a good luck charm in the past).
As the lander hurtled towards the planet, mathematical precision was vital in keeping it from burning up on descent, but it stayed on course, and its parachute – deploying at over the speed of sound, 7 miles above the surface – went off without a hitch.
InSight touched down at 19:54 GMT.
Within minutes the first image had returned from across the gulf of space to NASA – a dust covered snapshot of a truly alien landscape, one where humans have yet to walk, but which has now been invaded many times by strange robots from space.
The image showed the Elysium Planitia, which, in both meaning and reality, is a flat plain.
InSight landed about 370 miles from where the previous mission, Curiosity, had touched down, a distance roughly equivalent from Washington D.C. to Boston. However, unlike Curiosity and most recent missions, the InSight lander is not mobile, which makes the flat and featureless plain an ideal destination. Furthermore, this lander is equipped with large solar panels – designed to gather as much sunlight as possible – which benefit from its location on the planet’s equator.
The InSight Lander is bringing a new mission to the Red Planet; it will use sophisticated instruments to study the interior of the planet, giving us a better understanding of the physical makeup of Mars and helping us to build an improved model of rocky planet formation in the Solar System and beyond. To this end, the lander has been equipped with super-sensitive seismic instrumentation designed to detect activity in the Martian crust (Marsquakes) and meteor impacts. It also has a drill to tunnel 5 meters into the surface, and a heat probe that can measure temperature – this will also lay the groundwork for future space missions, such as investigating Jupiter’s moon Europa, which has oceans under its ice crust, and may be a home to simple life-forms. Furthermore, InSight’s radio equipment will allow us to determine how the planet moves as it orbits the Sun, giving an indication to the size and density of its core, and allowing us to determine whether or not it is still in a liquid molten state.
The internal composition of Mars remains largely unknown, and its relative tectonic stability means it is ideal for mapping out geological processes over large time scales. Although rocky in overall composition, planets such as Mars, Earth, and Venus are thought to differ in how their inner layers formed, and InSight’s mission is to illuminate this gap in our knowledge.
Having spent the last six months crossing the void between neighbouring worlds, the lander will spend one Martian year (about two of Earth) collecting data. It has been a mission long in the making, and sending a lander to another planet is not an easy task – the InSight team has been preparing for almost a decade and at a tidy cost of one billion dollars (although that’s still half of what people spend on coffee each day).
But it is worth it. By looking to Mars for answers, we will increase our understanding of the other rocky planets in our solar neighbourhood, and those orbiting distant stars. Our exploration of the cosmos is only in its infancy, and each step we take to understand the solar system is one more step out into the universe itself.