NASA’s Successful Insight Rover Landing: A Capture of the Drama, Power, and Beauty in Space Exploration

Mars has recently captured international attention with the successful landing of NASA’s InSight (short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) Probe on November 26. Its mission: to figure out how Mars formed and what has happened to the planet since then. Using data from other rovers, scientists have suggested that the part-iron, part-sulfur core may take up half the radius of the planet. They propose that the mantle may have been active like that of the Earth, but has now solidified for reasons unknown. The past tectonic activity is responsible for the giant volcanos, huge canyon systems, and evidence of a watery past we see today.

InSight will spend the next two to three months analyzing where to place two of its three instruments: its SEIS (measures seismic measurements from the Earth) and HP3 (measures the heat leaving the planet from 16 feet below the surface in the mantle). In addition, it carries the RISE (measures the planet’s wobbling). The data collected from these instruments will be used to collectively determine conjectures about the formation and evolution of planets as a whole.

Ambitious, right? Actually, carrying out the purpose of these instruments is the relatively easy task in this mission. The real challenge was getting it to Mars in the first place. Out of the numerous attempts by the US and Russia to send Mars-bound spacecraft, only 40% have been successful.

The project, which was originally supposed to launch March 2016 but missed launch period windows due to seismometer failure in the vacuum chamber, launched early May 2018. Since then, a team of researchers has been constantly monitoring its progress and potential dangers to its trajectory. It was not only an extraordinary amount of money on the line—it was four full years of their lives, and the embarrassment of failure after delaying the launch by two years.

The spacecraft descended through the debris-filled atmosphere at an initial speed of 12,300 mph, about 16 times faster than a bullet. Furthermore, if the lander was to successfully enter the atmosphere, it would need to plummet into Mars at an angle of entry of 12 degrees, with little or no uncertainty. A steeper angle would cause it to burn into a fiery death. A shallower angle and it would skip off the atmosphere like a rock skimming the water. Try doing that math, calculus students!

The lander would additionally experience an acceleration equal to 12 times of that on Earth. The 800-pound craft would weight an astonishing 5.3 tons, equal to the weight of 1900 Zuhmdahl AP Chemistry textbooks. At that scale, debris that passed the shields would have disastrous effects.

At the command center: “Sudden change in Doppler. Altitude….400 meters…100 meters…20 meters…standing by for touchdown” and then it comes: “touchdown”. The magnitude of their work truly goes to show that when people are truly diligent and passionate about their work, they can accomplish missions that really are out of this world. However, their work does not begin to approach the capacity of humans in space exploration. We still have so much to learn about the universe and so many more places to go. Their work only ensures that all future generations will have the information they gather on this mission and are able to focus on grander projects which further human understanding of the universe.

It is disheartening to think that true exploration will only occur beyond our deaths, but that is luckily not entirely true. Our generation will be the first to walk foot on Mars and the first to experience the age of commercial space travel.  “The fact that my generation will be the first to step foot onto Mars makes me feel honored,” sophomore Aarush Aitha stated. “I feel that my generation will mark a beginning to a whole new frontier of extraterrestrial colonization.” Aitha studies astronomy in his free time and aspires to be an astronomer.  

It is truly inspiring to watch a group of passionate workers celebrate their work that endured the most extreme conditions this universe has to offer. Often, we kid ourselves into believing their success comes from luck, which could not be further from the truth. They experience endless-nights and high-pressure situations, and they do it all for this—an objective that is much bigger and greater than themselves and makes them feel as though despite all of that stress, they would gladly do it all over again. One could imagine their philosophy, as J. J. Adams, Commander of United Planets Cruiser C57D, from the movie Forbidden Planet charmingly put it, goes something like this: “All right, so it’s impossible—how long will it take?”