Let’s marvel at InSight
Let’s take a moment to marvel at what we can do when we are at our best.
NASA’s InSight lander successfully touched down on Mars [earlier this month], a few minutes before 3 p.m. Eastern time, ending a journey of more than six months and 300 million miles.
The path to the successful landing, of course, started much earlier than that. It was the eighth successful Mars landing since Viking 1 in 1976, and each mission builds on the one before it.
You can go back even further, too, to the beginnings of the space program, to the first satellites launched nervously into orbit, to the eventual landmark landing of a manned spacecraft on the moon, and to every mission and experiment that came after.
All that experience and success may have over time made space exploration seem routine — oh, look, we landed on Mars again. However, it is anything but. It takes state-of-the-art technology operated by people with high levels of expertise and focus — and even then, only about 40 percent of Mars landings are successful.
Anyone watching this week can see why. InSight entered the Martian atmosphere traveling at about 12,300 mph. It had to do so precisely at the entry angle of 12 degrees; otherwise, it would have either burned up or bounced back into space.
The entry into the atmosphere begins the “seven minutes of terror,” as NASA officials call it, named after the time from entry until the landing of earlier Mars missions. In that time, through the use of a parachute and rockets, and with the help of atmospheric drag, the lander dropped from 12,300 mph to 5 mph right before it settled into the soft soil.
InSight, launched in May from Vandenburg Air Force Base in California, landed at Elysium Planitia, a flat, barren landscape from which the lander will begin the first-ever investigation of the interior of Mars, sending images at regular intervals back to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Working slowly with only those occasional images as guides, NASA operators will over the next few months confirm that InSight is working. Then it will get to work. An arm on the lander will be used to place seismometers on the ground to listen to the planet’s tremors, or marsquakes — the red planet’s equivalent of earthquakes. A separate instrument will burrow 16 feet into the ground.
Together, those instruments will over the course of two years try to tell us something about how Mars formed. In doing so, scientists hope it will also tell us how Earth, a rocky planet just like Mars, may have formed as well.
In that way, InSight is like a time machine, taking us back to see what Earth might have been like millions of years ago, providing elusive answers to our own origins.
It is an amazing accomplishment, one that should be free of rancor and cynicism. When we want to, we can reach the stars.
The Rome Sentinel