NASA completes another successful Mars landing with the InSight spacecraft.
Touchdown! After an epic six-month journey, NASA’s InSight spacecraft successfully landed on Mars last month. Built by Lockheed Martin in Littleton, CO, the three-legged spacecraft endured a dangerous six-minute descent slowed by braking engines and a parachute. Updates on the spacecraft’s status came through radio signals which took more than eight minutes to reach Earth.
The plan for InSight was to aim for a flat area near the Martian equator that would provide a safe landing. The spacecraft would slow from 12,300 mph to zero in just six minutes.
This was NASA’s first attempt since 2012 when the Curiosity rover made its touchdown. It’s also the ninth attempt (all but one succeeded) since the 1976 Viking Probes. Other countries have been less successful at reaching Mars; the total success rate has only been 40 percent until now.
“Landing on Mars is one of the hardest single jobs that people have to do in planetary exploration,” said Bruce Banerdt, InSight’s lead scientist. “It’s such a difficult thing, it’s such a dangerous thing that there’s always a fairly uncomfortably large chance that something could go wrong.”
So, what’s the plan for InSight now that the stationary lander has reached Mars? The 800-pound spacecraft will lower a mechanical mole and seismometer into the ground with its six-foot robotic arm. The mole will hammer itself 16 feet under the surface to measure internal heat and predict possible quakes. This is a truly novel feat, since a seismometer has never functioned on Mars, and no spacecraft has dug deeper than inches into the ground.
Scientists hope that InSight will help us understand why our solar system’s planets ended up with such vastly different environments when they were formed 4.5 billion years ago. But this won’t get us any closer to an answer about whether there is life on Mars. Save that for NASA’s 2020 mission, when a future spacecraft will collect rocks that scientists will later analyze for evidence of life.
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