It was a good week if you like science.
The technology behind NASA’s latest space explorer to land on Mars was awe-inducing. Even the project’s engineers were giddy as schoolchildren.
InSight set down Monday on the featureless Martian plain known as the Elysium Planitia. The probe then beamed back an image speckled with red dust.
At NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, after tracking a harrowing seven-minute descent to the surface, the room full of engineers exploded when the announcer proclaimed, “Touchdown confirmed.” It was as though everyone’s inner 4-year-old had come out.
InSight traveled 301,223,981 miles over seven months to reach Mars. How far is that? About 12,000 trips around the world, or 100,000 trips across the country.
This was not a first, of course.
It’s the eighth successful landing on Mars since 1976, when Viking 1 became the first spacecraft to land and work on the planet, and the 45th exploratory mission of any kind since 1960. The NASA rover Curiosity is currently on Mars, rolling around on its six aluminum wheels searching for evidence of once-upon-a-time life. And Opportunity went into hibernation during a dust storm in June and is not expected to awaken — its malfunction feared disastrous.
Each mission is different, facing unique dangers and challenges. InSight’s landing alone was an extraordinary feat, as the craft had to slow down from 12,300 mph to about 5 mph at a precise 12-degree angle, all within what scientists and engineers dubbed “seven minutes of terror,” to land on Mars.
But now the real fun begins.
Mars is kind of a unique laboratory — a planet-sized laboratory — in that it’s gone through all the very initial processes of planetary formation 4.5 billion years ago. But then, just a few tens of millions of years after it formed, it slowed way down. So the structures that were set up way back then are still in place — the crust that was put in place when it was first formed, the structure of the mantle and so forth.
So scientists say we can actually use Mars as kind of a time machine to go back and look at how things were on the planets very soon after they were first formed, and there’s some very key processes that determine which way a planet is going to go, whether it goes to a planet with a thick atmosphere and an ocean, or it goes to a very dry planet with a thin atmosphere, or a planet with a super thick atmosphere like Venus, which is extremely hot and sulfurous.
These differences among the planets we think are due to very subtle changes, very subtle differences in the way they formed early on, and we want to be able to understand those processes.
Mars is a great place to study that, the scientists say.
In its editorial on the historic landing, The New York Times wrote, “A random sampling of comments from the public suggests not everyone is convinced that digging on Mars is money well spent. But the basic answer is that whether it’s practical or not, humans will continue to explore the heavens so long as the moon, Mars and the myriad celestial bodies beyond fire our imagination and curiosity. What happened in the earliest days of the universe? How were Earth and its fellow planets formed? And the question of questions: Is there life out there?”
Those are important questions indeed.
Just in case you were thinking of hopping a ride with Elon Musk, there are a few things you ought to know before you go: Mars’ seasons last twice as long as on Earth (kind of like how this winter will feel come March); and while there are signs there was once water, there are no signs of life. Mars does have the best conditions, after Earth, for life to form, however.
For now, let’s stay put. We can point to a lot of things on our planet that also require study and answers. But it remains exciting when, after a seven-month journey hurtling through space, NASA can still thread that needle using mathematical calculations and the laws of physics and gravity to put a man-made probe exactly where the engineers wanted it to go.
Mars is an exciting place.
It’s a tempting target.
And it’s proving to be a wonderful teacher.
It’s hard to say what answers Mars will reveal in the next two years, but it is a powerful lesson that, as humans, we know which questions to ask and how to get those answers.