Thursday , June 24 2021

After NASA's intense InSight Mars landing, here's what happens next


InSight will spend the next few months setting up its science lab on Mars.


NASA successfully pulled off its eighth landing of a spacecraft on the surface of Mars as the world watched on Monday. But making the long journey and touching down without any explosions is just the beginning.

The first few things the InSight lander did after its hot and harrowing six-minute descent through the Martian atmosphere included snapping on dusty but still remarkable photo and then begin to unfurl its solar arrays.

Five hours after landing, mission control at NASA and InSight contractor Lockheed Martin should receive confirmation that the solar arrays are in place and working. This will be critical to ensuring InSight can actually carry out its mission to explore the interior of Mars, listen to "Marsquakes" and figure out how many meteorites batter the Red Planet.

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"We are solar powered, so getting the arrays out and operating is a big deal," InSight project manager Tom Hoffman said in a statement following the landing. "With the arrays providing the energy we need to start the cool science operations, we are well on our way to thoroughly investigate what's inside of Mars for the very first time."

Once InSight is powered up, the mission teams will go over a checklist to make sure the lander, its on-board robotic arm and all its science instruments are in good health. The dust covers will come off of its two cameras, clearing up the gritty view seen in InSight's first photo and allowing for a detailed survey of that red ground to determine the best place to set down the instruments.

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Next, the robotic arm will set InSight's seismometer called SEIS (Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure), and put a wind and thermal shield down on top of it. With SEIS in place, the probes and "mole" that will dig as deep as 16 feet (4.9 meters) into the planet to measure internal temperature and study Mars' guts will be next.

Elizabeth Barrett, who heads InSight's instrument operations, told reporters Monday that the process of setting the instruments on the ground alone will take two to three months, followed by another month or two to drill and begin to get back the data.

All told, the science portion of the mission could begin in March 2019.

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"Landing was thrilling, but I'm looking forward to the drilling," InSight chief investigator Bruce Banerdt said in a statement.

Once InSight's instruments are set up, they could continue to return data for quite some time.

"We should be listening for Marsquakes for at least two years, and we expect considerably longer," Professor Tom Pike of Imperial College London, who was part of the team that designed the seismometer, in a statement.

Banerdt says the broader goal of InSight is to better understand not just Mars, but Earth and other planets. This is possible because evidence of the early years following Earth's formation has been erased by processes like weather and plate tectonics that appear to be less active on Mars.

"On Mars, all those things that were formed (early) are still frozen in place," Banerdt explained during Monday's press conference.

Unlike its rover cousins, InSight itself will also be stuck in place, but it stands to be very active in shaping our understanding of Mars and the rest of the universe. Stay tuned

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