Online Astronomy

NASA Insight Mission Mars Lander

In this month’s Online Astronomy blog we are looking at the NASA Insight Mission. This mission marks the eighth successful Mars landings in human history. Launched back on May 5th, 2018 the Insight sent the official signal to signal a successful landing on Tuesday 27th November 2018. In addition to the “beep” signal, a photo of its surrounding surface was sent to NASA.

Online Astronomy - The NASA InSight team reacts after receiving confirmation that the spacecraft successfully touched down on the surface of Mars, inside the Mission Support Area at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Credit NASA/B. Ingalls

What Was The Mission?

NASA has studied Mars from the surface and its orbit for over 50 years since 1965. From this, they have gained valuable knowledge about its surface chemistry, geology, atmosphere, and weather. However, the Insight mission is to explore the deep interior of the planet. Previously they have been able to gain little knowledge about this aspect of the Red Planet. As a result of this mission, NASA can have a greater understanding of our terrestrial neighbour. This is all in preparation for sending human explorer deep into our solar system.

Why Was It Important?

As we mentioned earlier there has only ever been eight successful landings on the Red Planet. That’s just a 40% success rate of all the attempted missions. This is largely due to the Martian atmosphere being just 1% in comparison to the Earths. As such, landing becomes a tricky manoeuvre as there is nothing to reduce speed when landing on its surface. It has taken over a decade from concept to completion of this mission and the landing is just the beginning.

The Landing

Often referred to as “seven minutes of terror” by NASA engineers due to its complexity the landing was well planned. Insight managed to reduce its speed from 12,300 mph to 5 mph in under eight minutes. The craft detaches from the heat shield as the parachute opens. The tripod legs of the craft deploy with a radar sensor to judge its distance from the ground. Once the radar signals the craft separates from its parachute and remaining shell and fires up its descent engines to prepare for its land. Touching down at 2:54 p.m. ET and just before 3 p.m. ET the signal was received here on Earth.

What Happens Now?

The Insights mission will not begin straight away. Over the next few months, the mission’s instruments will be placed on the surface of the planet. Once this is complete the two-year science mission can begin! The tools will be used to drill down into the surface to investigate the causes of the seismic waves and the heat flow.

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