After seven minutes of high anxiety - attempting to touch down a billion-dollar spacecraft on another planet after slowing it down several thousands of miles per hour can do that to your nerves - NASA's latest Mars spacecraft signaled its safe touchdown on the Red Planet. Now, InSight prepares to get to work learning more about the planet by scanning below its surface. A local astronomer says if there's water to be found on Mars, underground is where you'll find it.
The latest arrival to Mars will scan deeper into the Martian soil to learn more about how Earth's neighbor was formed.
"In order to do that you need to look a little deeper in the interior," said Tim Collins, whose local work in astronomy includes roles with the Whitworth Ferguson Planetarium at Buffalo State College and at the Buffalo Museum of Science, where he joined earlier this year as its observatory manager. "It's going to drill down about five meters and take a temperature. It's also going to be listening for 'Marsquakes,' to see if there's any seismic activity. We know Mars has had some in the past, but we really haven't seen if it is anywhere near as active as Earth."
What scanning below the surface might also find is the presence of liquid water. With an existing interest in sending humans to Mars one day, and a limit as to what can be carried from Earth to Mars, the question remains whether there's enough water available on the planet.
Collins says if you're going to find it, it will be well below the surface. The very thin Martian air works against the ability to hold water at the surface.
"The way the atmosphere is composed right now, water certainly cannot exist on the surface," he said. "It will evaporate immediately."
InSight is NASA's eighth successful landing since Vikings 1 and 2 touched down on Mars in 1976. Its most recent landing before InSight was Curiosity back in 2012. More recent spacecraft, including Pathfinder, Spirit and Opportunity, utilized a landing system involving a series of air bags that inflated as the craft neared the ground, allowing it to use gravity to bounce off the surface and eventually roll to a stop before unfolding to free the probe inside. InSight is more of a traditional lander, similar to what brought astronauts to the Moon. Only this time, the landing was done remotely and first involved slowing the object from several thousands of miles per hours to just a handful.
"It is quite a challenge and an engineering feat to be able to do that, to be able to land this thing manually with thrusters after it gets to a certain speed and certain height to bring it down safely," Collins said. "It's a little more accurate than bouncing it around off soft balloons like what has been done in the past."