One hundred million miles away, an 800-pound spacecraft sits on an alien world. It is alone on a smooth and sandy plain … but thousands of eyes are watching its every move.
Eyes that hope it will reveal the secrets of the universe.
This modern marvel, dubbed InSight by NASA, took six months — and about $1 billion — to reach the surface of Mars. The perilous last six minutes of its journey were shown at viewing parties at museums, planetariums and libraries across the country and at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, where scientists gathered, with fingers crossed, to see the conclusion of the incredible jaunt.
The final few minutes of InSight’s trip were a nailbiter. A parachute and braking engines slowed the craft’s speed from an unimaginable 12,300 mph as it entered the Martian atmosphere to about 5 mph at touchdown. With a landing success rate of about 40 percent on the fourth planet from the sun, scientists were understandably jubilant as InSight settled onto the west side of Elysium Planitia.
The craft will stay in its landing spot for the next two years as it explores the interior of Mars. A mechanical mole will burrow 16 feet down to check the planet’s temperature. A lander will measure the rocky world’s quakes. And another experiment will try to determine the makeup of Mars’ core.
As the JPL’s director said, the findings will force books on Mars to be completely rewritten.
It may be hard for some to get too worked up abou tInSight, its potentially historic findings or the first “dirty” snapshot of Mars it sent across the cosmos.
But this is just the eighth time we’ve successfully landed a creation of human ingenuity on the Martian landscape. The first incursion was in 1976 with the Viking probes. Before InSight, our last endeavor was the Curiosity rover in 2012.
That rover is still on the move … as is our quest to better understand our closest planetary neighbor.
That understanding could unlock the ultimate insight … answers to why Earth became a haven for life and other planets remain barren.
That undoubtedly makes a dirty snapshot from the surface of Mars worth getting worked up over.