Connect with us


NASA’s InSight robot just landed on Mars. Here’s what it may discover.



nasa insight mars lander landing success mission control staff hugs high fives 02 jpl caltech youtube
Scientists and engineers
inside mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory
celebrate the landing of the InSight Mars probe on


  • NASA just successfully landed its InSight robot on the surface
    of Mars.
  • InSight won’t move around Mars, but it will be the first mission to
    take the red planet’s
  • NASA will also listen
    for Mars quakes
    caused by meteorite impacts and tectonic
    movements. The vibrations could help scientists decipher the
    interior structure of the planet.
  • Scientists hope InSight will help answer questions
    about how rocky planets become habitable (like Earth) or
    inhospitable (like Mars).

While online shoppers celebrated Cyber Monday deals, NASA
researchers cheered the successful landing of a new probe on

The roughly $830 million mission is called
, short for “Interior Exploration using Seismic
Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport.”

its 789-pound robot toward Mars on May 5, along with
two briefcase-size satellites called Mars Cube One that
trailed the spacecraft
to help record and relay crucial
landing data.

InSight completed a
treacherous 14-minute descent
to the Martian surface at 2:54
p.m. ET on Monday, then confirmed its safe arrival with a beep —
a moment that sent scientists and engineers jumping and screaming
for joy in mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in

Monday’s Mars landing was the first since the
Curiosity rover reached the red planet’s
surface more than six years ago.

Read more: 13
incredible facts you probably didn’t know about Mars

Now that NASA has a new high-tech robot on the Martian surface,
planetary scientists are eager to put InSight to work. But
they’ll have to wait until Monday night to know for sure that
InSight is healthy.

“We’re going to kick up a lot of dust when we land, and we need
to let that dust settle before we want to unfurl our solar
arrays,” Tom Hoffman,
the InSight mission’s payload manager, said during a live broadcast
by NASA. “We’re 100% solar-powered, so it’s very important that
we get those out.”

nasa mars insight robotic probe landing mission animation lockheed martin 00015
An illustration of NASA’s
InSight probe with its solar panels unfurled on Mars’


NASA expects to confirm that the solar panels are deployed around
8:30 p.m. ET. Assuming all goes well, the spacecraft will be
poised to probe Mars over the next two Earth years in ways
researchers had only dreamed about.

“InSight’s a very different mission in the sense that it is
peering into the past by studying, really, the interior of Mars,”
Robert Braun, NASA’s former
chief technologist and a technical consultant for National
Geographic’s “Mars” series, previously told Business Insider. “In
doing so, we’re going to learn about Mars, but also about the
early history of the Earth.”

Here’s what NASA hopes to discover with InSight now that the
probe has arrived safely.

Why NASA landed InSight on a flat Martian plain

mars elysium planitia martian surface insight lander photo simulation nasa jpl
simulation of Elysium Planitia on Mars.


InSight landed on Mars at a place known as Elysium Planitia, a relatively
flat region free of boulders, craters, and other potentially
mission-ending obstacles.

The location might seem boring — certainly compared with the
ancient mountain that Curiosity is climbing — but researchers say
InSight is well-positioned to pull off an unprecedented
scientific mission.

Elysium Planitia is just north of the Martian equator, where the
sun’s rays are relatively strong year-round. Using two circular
solar panels to capture that free energy, InSight could operate
for two Earth years, or about one Martian year.

elysia planitia insight mars lander site map nasa
landed its InSight robot at Elysium Planitia, near the Martian

Business Insider

That’s a huge difference from InSight’s nearly identical
predecessor, the Phoenix Mars Lander.

Phoenix landed in 2008 and dug for water ice near Mars’ north
pole. But the robot died after a few months because the sunlight
was too feeble to warm its electronics.

InSight is equipped with different scientific instruments,
though, and researchers think the soil at Elysium Planitia will
be loose enough to allow the robot to pound a heat probe deep
into the ground.

That will help InSight perform the first “checkup” of the
4.6-billion-year-old planet.

“InSight’s goal is to study the interior of Mars and take the
planet’s vital signs, its pulse, and temperature,” NASA says on
its mission website. “To look
deep into Mars, the lander must be at a place where it can stay
still and quiet for its entire mission. That’s why scientists
chose Elysium Planitia as InSight’s home.”

Probing the ancient secrets of Mars — and Earth too

mars rocky planet hot molten core interior cutaway illustration nasa PIA16078_orig
A cutaway illustration
showing what scientists think Mars’ interior might look


The InSight mission’s goal is to figure out how Mars formed and
what has happened to the planet since then. Scientists know that
Mars once generated an atmosphere-protecting magnetic dynamo, as
Earth still does today. But the Martian core’s dynamo eventually
shut down, and the planet’s protective shield faded, allowing the
sun to
blow away Mars’ atmosphere
oceans of water

Now that InSight is powered up and in touch with Earth, it will
use its robotic arm to pluck a dome-shaped instrument off its
landing platform and gently place it on the Martian surface. The
dome contains six sensitive vibration-detection devices called

Seismometers on Earth and the moon (Apollo
astronauts deployed some on the lunar surface
) have recorded
earthquakes and moonquakes, which have helped scientists figure
out the internal structure of those rocky worlds. On Mars, NASA
researchers hope to accomplish a similar feat: listening for Mars

Whenever a meteorite strikes Mars, or there’s a landslide, or a
big blob of magma suddenly shifts, or there’s tectonic movement,
InSight’s seismometers should detect such vibrations. The devices
are designed to record seismic activity from all the way across
the planet.

Over time, data about Mars quakes could reveal hitherto unknown
information about the internal structure of the planet.

The other device InSight will deploy is a 6.5-pound, mole-like heat probe, which will hammer itself into the soil,
stopping every so often to heat up. An onboard sensor will then
detect how long it takes that warmth to dissipate.

NASA InSight Mars lander
artist’s illustration of the InSight lander on


The probe is expected to dig 16 feet down — far deeper than any
previous Mars mission has reached with scoops, shovels, or

“When we get down that deep, we’ll get away from all of the
temperature variations of the surface,” Suzanne Smrekar, the
mission’s deputy principal investigator, said during a press briefing in October. “That tells us
about the heat coming out of the planet, that energy that’s
available for driving geologic activity.”

The data will help Smrekar and others calculate how quickly
energy in Mars’ core can escape — the equivalent of taking the
planet’s temperature.

That warmth is left over from Mars’ formation some 4.6 billion
years ago, though it also comes from the decay of radioactive
elements. These measurements are critical for decoding the red
planet’s past, as well as that of Earth and
other rocky planets
. That’s because heat flow from the core
can help drive plate tectonics, a factor believed to
separate habitable worlds from dead ones

Researchers can also use the data to figure out whether
pools of warm water
could exist on Mars. Such pools, if
present, may support
microbial alien life
(and provide
rich targets
for future missions).

Back on the surface, InSight will also use a sensitive radio
science experiment to see how subtly Mars wobbles during its
orbit around the sun. This data should tell researchers what’s
going on in the deepest parts of the planet’s core.

nasa mars insight robotic probe mission press briefing bruce banerdt NHQ201810310005_orig
Banerdt, the lead scientist of the InSight mission to


In probing Mars’ history, scientists think we’re bound to learn
about our own planet’s origins.

Earth “is a big planet that holds a lot of heat, a lot of energy,
and it’s been very geologically active over its entire history —
so most of the record of the early processes that formed the
Earth have been erased,” Hoffman said during NASA’s October press
briefing. “We’d like to have a planet that’s just a little bit
calmer and that can retain that evidence.”

That makes sedate Mars, which is similar to Earth but has
remained almost frozen in time, the perfect place to go looking.

Hilary Brueck contributed reporting.

Continue Reading
Advertisement Find your dream job