A NASA spacecraft designed to burrow beneath the surface of Mars landed on the red planet on Monday after a six-month, 300 million-mile (482 million km) journey and a perilous, six-minute descent through the rose-hued atmosphere. Flight controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, leaped out of their seats and erupted in screams, applause, and laughter as the news came in.
It was NASA’s ninth attempt to land at Mars since the 1976 Viking probes. All but one of the previous U.S. touchdowns was successful. NASA last landed on Mars in 2012 with the Curiosity rover.
InSight is part of NASA’s Discovery Program, managed by the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
It will be the first mission to peer deep beneath the Martian surface, studying the planet’s interior by measuring its heat output and listening for marsquakes, which are seismic events similar to earthquakes on Earth.
It will use the seismic waves generated by marsquakes to develop a map of the planet’s deep interior.
The findings of Mars’ formation will help better understand how other rocky planets, including Earth, were and are created. But InSight is more than a Mars mission – it is a terrestrial planet explorer that would address one of the most fundamental issues of planetary and solar system science – understanding the processes that shaped the rocky planets of the inner solar system (including Earth) more than four billion years ago.
InSight would delve deep beneath the surface of Mars, detecting the fingerprints of the processes of terrestrial planet formation, as well as measuring the planet’s “vital signs”: Its “pulse” (seismology), “temperature” (heat flow probe), and “reflexes” (precision tracking).
Insight’s seek to answer one of science’s most fundamental questions: How did the terrestrial planets form?
Previous missions to Mars have investigated the surface history of the Red Planet by examining features like canyons, volcanoes, rocks and soil. However, signatures of the planet’s formation can only be found by sensing and studying its “vital signs” far below the surface.
In comparison to the other terrestrial planets, Mars is neither too big nor too small. This means that it preserves the record of its formation and can give us insight into how the terrestrial planets formed. It is the perfect laboratory from which to study the formation and evolution of rocky planets. Scientists know that Mars has low levels of geological activity. But a lander like InSight can also reveal just how active Mars really is.