I found myself standing cold and wet in Times Square on a very rainy Monday afternoon. I was there to witness the November 26th landing of the Insight Mars lander on the Nasdaq screen.
Mars is one of our sister planets. Like Earth it possesses an atmosphere albeit a thin one, and similar to Earth, it has mountains, valleys, and ice caps at its poles.
NASA has been very carefully studying the surface of Mars for decades now. Our observations began with telescopes here on Earth and then advanced to flyby missions with space probes. In the 1970s NASA landed on the surface of Mars with the twin robotic surface probes Viking 1 and 2. Many surface probes have followed including the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, and more recently the Curiosity rover.
All of these missions have focused on exploring the surface of Mars. But what about the interior?
We know the Earth has a complex layered interior extending from our thin ridged crust to the thick viscous mantle, to the liquid outer core and solid inner core. We learned about the composition, density and temperature of these layers due to careful observation of earthquakes.
When an earthquake occurs, waves of energy called seismic waves travel from the point of origin outward along the surface and down through the interior of the planet. Sensitive machines called seismographs can detect these waves and we use them to create a picture of the inside of our planet, just as a sonogram can create a picture of the inside of a person with sound waves.
InSight will deploy a miniaturized, highly sensitive seismograph on the surface of Mars that will allow us to detect and measure Marsquakes. This will allow us to see inside another planet for the first time.
Will Mars have a crust, mantle, inner and outer core like the Earth?
Will it be more like the Moon which has a fractured crust and molten core?
Will it have a composition completely different from the Earth or Moon?
InSight will answer these questions for the first time and help advance the field of planetary science. It will help us answer questions about how our planet formed as well.
But before it could start collecting data and observations it had to land safely on the surface. This was no small feat as two-thirds of all missions ever sent to Mars have ended in failure.
Launching a sensitive probe atop a powerful rocket is risky. Flying it over 30 million miles through the cold, irradiated, vacuum of space is risky. But landing is the hardest part.
During the actual landing, the space probe was completely on its own. It takes a radio signal 7 minutes to travel from Mars to Earth so the flight controllers at the Jet Propulsion Lab in California could only watch and wait to see if the probe was going to make it.
It was a tense 7 minutes. Some of the people watching had been working on this mission for over 10 years. 10 years of planning, building, and preparing. In the end it all comes down to 7 minutes of watching and waiting.
That was why I was in Times Square on a rainy day looking up at a giant screen. I was there to experience the thrill and excitement of a landing on Mars with hundreds of other people and possibly hundreds of thousands across the world as we collectively held our breath.
If all went well a signal indicating the probe had landed would arrive on Earth at 2:53 p.m. – more than 7 minutes after it had in fact happened millions of miles away on Mars. I stared up, blinking rain out of my eyes as we listened to flight the control call out the mile-stones.
“Altitude 200 meters… 50 meters…17 meters, standing by for touchdown… Touchdown confirmed!”
InSight had landed successfully. In Times Square we all erupted in cheers. But the most excited people were clearly the men and women who worked on the mission that was only now just beginning. We watched them jump out of their seats, hugging, and shaking hands, while some took a long sigh of relief.
I have been following the InSight mission for years. Back in 2015 NASA allowed people to sign up to have their names sent to Mars on a microchip on Insight. My name is on that chip along with the names of 827,000 other people. I watched in May of this year when Insight left Earth forever atop a mighty Atlas 5 rocket. I spoke about the mission to visitors at the Nurture Nature Center as we viewed images of Mars on our Science on a Sphere® exhibit, and then I watched it land on Mars.
We will all get the opportunity to experience the thrill of seeing another world in a new way as InSight uncovers deep mysteries about one of our closest neighbors in the solar system.
I look forward to sharing it’s discoveries with you over the coming months and years. Please join me Saturday February 2nd at 1 p.m. to learn more about the InSight mission.