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Sunday 1 October 2023 Dublin: 18°C
# martian task
Here's what Nasa's InSight lander has been up to this week
We have the details on what its next few weeks will be like.

MAN’S JOURNEY TO Mars has long been a source of fascination to us humans. Will we ever get there? Do we even want to get there? Would it make a good alternative Earth should something – or someone – destroy the planet?

That’s where Nasa comes in. Six years after the Curiosity Rover landed there, it has sent another spacecraft – the Insight lander – to the Red Planet to find out more about how the rock formed and what it can teach us about Earth.

Nasa said that before InSight, “only about 40% of all attempts by various nations had succeeded” in landing on the planet. To make sure that it captured all necessary data even in the case of a failed landing, it sent two ‘black boxes’ with InSight, which were nicknamed Eve and Wall-E after the decade-old Pixar film.

These briefcase-sized boxes contained experimental radios and antennas, in order to help engineers monitor the landing (and send back information on what wrong if something did go wrong).

InSight landed on martian soil on Monday, seven years after its journey first began. The next step was to wait for its solar arrays to open.

Mars InSight’s goal is to map the inside of Mars in three dimensions, and also to listen for quakes and tremors. These are all to give a look into the Red Planet, to give scientists an insight into how it formed – and hopefully how other rocky planets (like Earth) were formed. 

Heat shields

Its arrival on Mars was intense – it travelled at 19,800 kilometres an hour, and had to be covered with a heat-shield because of the incredibly high temperatures as it entered the Mars atmosphere.

The heat shield soared to a temperature of about 1,500 Celsius before it was discarded and a parachute helped InSight drift safely down to the ground.

InSight’s mission is to last one year and 40 sols of Mars time – that’s nearly two years of Earth time. A sol is a full day in Mars, lasting 24 hours, 39 minutes and 35.244 seconds. 

Its science data collection doesn’t start properly until about 10 weeks after landing, says Nasa:

That’s because InSight’s science goals and instruments are very different from other Mars landers or rovers that have gone before. In some ways, InSight’s science activities are more like a marathon than a sprint. The lander team must carefully select where to place the precious science instruments, which will be the first to study the interior of Mars.

It took 15 minutes for the dust to settle around InSight after it landed. Then its solar array motors warmed up so that its solar panels (which give it energy) could open. 

Its first few tasks that day included checking its health indicators, taking a wide-angle image, and powering down to ‘sleep’ mode for its first night on Mars.

The next big steps: first, InSight must place its Heat flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) and Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) on the planet’s surface. These, says Nasa, will “take the ‘vital signs’ of Mars” – they’ll take a few weeks to be fully deployed.

The SEIS is a heat probe that will be placed into the ground, burrowing down into the soil. As it goes down, it will generate a pulse of heat – and it will study how this heat travels through the soil around it, measuring thermal conductivity. It will reach 16 feet deep in about 40 days.

The vibrations the heat probe will make on its way down will be used by scientists to study the ground. 

This makes InSight the first mission to directly study the deep interior of a planet other than Earth.

Next, its radio science investigation and primary science instruments will collect science data for at least one Mars year (687 Earth days). They’ll stay stationary for the remainder of the mission.

All of these important instruments are on the landing deck – InSight must remove them with its robotic arm and place them on the surface of the planet. 

To get it right, the lander and the operations team on Earth must move carefully and deliberately, and ensure the instruments are placed properly for the best observations. 

Nasa doesn’t exaggerate when it says:

The mission may well rewrite textbooks. There’s a lot of pressure on the team to make all the right moves!

So what can we expect from InSight over the next few weeks? Nasa says that in the next week the lander’s Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment (RISE) will start collecting data, take pictures of the instrument deployment area, and start monitoring the weather and surface temperature on Mars. 

RISE will trade radio signals back and forth with Earth for about an hour a day over a period of two years, which will help it “detect subtle, slow changes in mars’ wobble”, which will in turn help to give an insight into Mars’ core.

InSight will communicate with Earth once a day once it is fully set up – but for the next few weeks it will ‘talk’ with Earth twice a day. 

All we have to do now is wait for Nasa to keep us updated on what InSight finds. It might not be instant, headline-grabbing information, but what it will be is data we never new before, data which will become ever more important as time passes.

What secrets are hidden on Mars? We’re going to find some of them out thanks to InSight. What an exciting time for space exploration. 

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