November 27th is a day that saw the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at the NASA research centre explode into deafening cheers. This was due to the fact that, after a tense seven-minute final wait, the InSight robotic probe finally touched down on Mars surface. Confirmation came through clearly at 19:53 GMT, after which the control room celebrated what had been a long, demanding mission.
Chief administrator, James Bridenstine was quick to officially announce that the project was a success, and described the day as one of the most amazing in NASA history. Even President Trump called to give his congratulations, marking what will surely be an achievement that lives on in space exploration history, and likewise a benchmark moment for science.
But what exactly is the InSight robotic probe, and how is it different from other missions that have landed on the Mars surface?
A Tense Landing
The InSight probe now sits in what is known as the Elysium Planitia, a vast, almost impossibly flat area of the Mars surface. The first image has been sent back to the control centre, showing what could almost be mistaken for a desert on Earth. But make no mistake, the image may look serene, if a little desolate, but the temperatures on Mars are freezing, and the probe went through hell in order to make a safe landing.
Upon entering the descent phase of the mission, InSight plummeted to the surface at speeds well beyond that of a bullet being fired from a gun. The control room held their breath in anticipation, knowing that one minor error could result in not only millions of lost dollars, but also years of lost effort. Everything went off without a hitch however, and via a combination of parachutes and compensation rockets the landing went smoothly. Immediately after landing, the probe deployed its solar panels, which were the next critical stage. This was also a success.
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How Is InSight Different?
But what’s the big deal, you might be asking, haven’t there already been a number of probes on Mars? Yes, the Pathfinder, Opportunity, Curiosity, Spirit and others have landed on Mars previously. But what makes InSight different is the unique array of tools that it has loaded onto its exterior. This includes a German Mole system, which will burrow five meters into the ground, as well as Franco-British seismometers, which will listen to terrestrial activity.
A third tool is experimental, using radio transmitters to measure the plant as it turns on its axis. A useful analogy was offered by Suzanne Smrekar, who explained that the difference seen in how raw and cooked eggs spin gives important clues as to what is going on in the interior of the objects.
This level of sophisticated equipment has never before been on a Mars exploration mission, and the information it sends back will be invaluable in learning more about the alien planet.
What Will We Learn?
The InSight Probe, its robotic arms, and ground drills are all certainly very impressive. But what is all this expensive equipment doing up in space, on another planet, and what will it actually teach us about our solar system?
Chief scientist Bruce Banerdt explained that understanding the inner workings of Mars is an important step in understanding how our solar system was born 4.5 billion years ago, and how it evolved to be as it is today. Bruce further pointed out that even the seemingly tiniest details about a planet can make the biggest differences in determining very important details about surface temperature. Knowing where you can get a tan on Earth, he emphasised, is understood by the same factors as those being explored on Mars with the InSight Probe.
Which is to say, understanding how a planet moves on its axis will reveal which areas of Mars’ surface will result in instant freezing, or likewise which areas of Venus surface will result in being scorched instantly to a crisp.