Mars InSight Lander Explained: NASA's Mission to Mars

Mars InSight Lander Explained: NASA's Mission to Mars
NASA's InSight Mars Lander deploys its instruments. Credit: NASA

NASA’s latest mission to Mars is unique because not only will it land a spacecraft on the surface of the planet, but the lander will perform science operations that will tell us about the geology and formation of the planet. InSight’s instruments will bore into the ground, measure ground motion, and measure the rotation of the planet.  

Like Earth, Mars is a rocky planet and this mission will give planetary scientists more insight into the formation of all rocky planets.  

What is the Mars InSight Lander

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NASA Mars Insight Mission. Credit: NASA

The InSight spacecraft is a robotic lander headed for the surface of Mars. Once it has reached the Martian atmosphere it will begin a sequence of entry, descent, and landing phases that will bring it to a predetermined area of Mars. While InSight is a mission to study the "inner space" of Mars, what scientists learn can help us understand all rocky planets.

During the two year mission, InSight will conduct several science operations on the surface of Mars, drill into the planet, test cubesat technology, and carry out several mission firsts. The name, InSight is a shortened version of the actual science operations that will be carried out by the lander: Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport.

The Journey to Mars

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InSight Landing Timeline. Credit: NASA

Once launched, InSight will enter an interplanetary cruise phase that will last 205 days, during which time the spacecraft will be calibrated and maneuvered to maintain trajectory. Once InSight approaches the planet it will go into entry, descent, and landing phases, with the actual descent and landing occurring breakneck speed.

It will take just over six minutes for the spacecraft to descend and land, a feat only possible after the performance of a specific a sequence of maneuvers. The lander will split from the core of the spacecraft, descend through the atmosphere while in its aeroshell, deploy a parachute to slow it down, and then activate descent thrusters to further slow it down immediately prior to landing on Mars.

During the entire entry phase several transmitters will keep track of InSight's progress and relay information back to Earth. The MarCO cubesats will attempt to send data back to Earth as InSight descends and lands, an incredibly advantageous technology for future Mars exploration missions.

The InSight Spacecraft and Science Instruments

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InSight spacecraft approaching Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The InSight spacecraft consists of six vital parts, with the lander being the core component. The cruise stage will get InSight to Mars and sits atop the encapsulated lander, the back shell and the heat shield form an aeroshell that encapsulates the core of the spacecraft. The lander, component deck, and thermal enclosure cover remain stowed inside the aeroshell during the cruise phase and release during entry, descent, and landing phases.

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InSight spacecraft flight system. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin Space

The science instruments on board the InSight spacecraft include:

  • SEIS, the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure, is a seismometer that will be placed directly onto the surface of Mars by InSight's robotic arms. This instrument will measure ground motion with six sensors.
  • HP³, the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Probe, is a three part instrument that will measure the heat escaping from the interior of Mars. Once HP³ bores about 15 feet into the surface of Mars, the heat probe will follow and measure heat flow. A radiometer, that is also part of this instrument, will measure surface heat.
  • RISE, the Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment, is the only experiment that does not require a separate instrument, but instead uses the X-band radio that is already installed on InSight to communicate with NASA's Deep Space Network. This experiment will measure the rotation of the planet Mars.

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NASA's InSight Mars Lander deploys its instruments. Credit: NASA

In addition to the instruments on board the InSight lander, a second set of spacecraft were launched on this mission. MarCO, or Mars Cube One, is a set of two cubesats- mini spacecrafts- that NASA is testing for their communication capabilities. MarCo is following behind InSight and will hopefully relay information about the lander back to Earth as it happens.

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An artist's rendition of MarCO at Mars with Earth in the distance. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Martian Surface Science

The overall goal of InSight is to learn more about the interior of the planet of Mars. Prior missions have been dedicated to both the atmosphere and surface of Mars, but with InSight scientists are hoping to understand more about the planet's formation, tectonic activity, and meteorite impact activity on Mars and what all of that means to the evolution of rocky planets.

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InSight lander on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Like Earth, Mars is a rocky planet, and through the measurements the instruments will make scientists can begin to gain a better understanding of how planets like ours are formed. This information can also lead to identifying other rocky planets that are similar to Earth.

Launch Details

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NASA's Lander InSight Launches for Mars on May 5th, 2018. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Photo Credit: Ben Smegelsky

The InSight spacecraft launched atop and Atlas V from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on May 5th, 2018. This was the first interplanetary launch from the west coast of the United States, and the decision to do so was based on the strength of ULA's Atlas V rocket and the lengthy launch window necessary for the mission.

Once launched, InSight has a 205 day cruise phase and is set to arrive at Mars on November 26th, 2018. NASA will live stream landing events at: www.nasa.gov/live at noon PST (2 p.m. CST) on Nov. 26.

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Filed under: Explained, Launch, NASA, News

Tags: Explained, InSight, Mars, NASA

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