On Saturday, United Launch Alliance successfully launched an Atlas V rocket carrying the next robot destined for the surface of Mars: Insight.
As the only planet (we’re aware of) that is entirely populated by robots, Mars has already seen an array of different machines specially designed to shed light the red planet’s mysteries, but none have been quite like Insight — which is actually short for the bot’s full name, Interior exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy, and Heat Transport.
Unlike the Mars missions ranging from Viking to Curiosity, Insight won’t be roaming around the surface of Mars — it will stay planted where it lands. For four months, it will prepare to execute a series of elaborate tests and after all that waiting, it’ll set about its business which entails more sitting. In fact, the Insight lander won’t do much of anything for two full Earth years. But what it will be doing, is listening.
The Insight mission is based on the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) experiment, which includes an array of sensors including a seismometer so sensitive it can register ocean noises from Colorado. Using this suite of sensors, scientists hope to learn more about how Mars functions as a planet.
Despite often being compared to the Earth, it’s believed that Mars bares a closer seismic resemblance to our moon. Lacking the tectonic plates that dictate much of how earth’s surface moves, Insight will likely register shudders and creaks, as the planet’s core continues to cool. The sensitive equipment will also be able to detect asteroid impacts over a massive region of the planet.
Admittedly, Insight isn’t the sexiest mission NASA has ever sent into deep space, but it does represent something that is possibly more important than the scientific discoveries it promises to make: a much needed win for the space agency that once served as the nation’s crown jewel, and now tends to make the news only when announcing yet another delay or disappointment in high dollar, long term projects like the Space Launch System (SLS) or the continually troubled James Webb Space telescope that has long been slated to replace the aging Hubble.
Insight’s success will give NASA something to talk about other than the recent reports of “screws and washers” falling off the James Webb telescope at Northrop Grumman’s facilities following acoustic shock testing, or how they expect to once again miss the deadline they provided lawmakers regarding the launch of the new rocket that is supposed to one day take Americans to the surface of Mars… insight of a seismic robot.
NASA does have a number of exciting projects in the works, including small nuclear reactors being developed in conjunction with the Department of Energy that could one day provide long duration power sources for Mars and Moon colonies — the problem is, these lofty projects all require actually launching such a mission, and in recent years, NASA doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to such lofty endeavors. It’s hard to get people excited about sending astronauts back to the moon when the same space program that successfully made the trip in the 1960s now can’t even put a rocket into orbit.
NASA’s failures are not their own, however. The program has been crippled by a combination of being overextended and underfunded by policy makers that expect Apollo level endeavors with shoestring budgets. For NASA to be successful, it needs reasonable expectations and reasonable funding. The dramatic advances of NASA’s heyday came as a result of incredible engineers and scientists working hard, of course, but the real MVP in the Gemini and Apollo missions was a boat load of money and popular support.
If NASA is ever going to make it back to the moon or beyond, it will need to secure the latter in order to gain the former — and successes of missions like Insight can help bring the agency’s credibility back in the eyes of a public that is increasingly more interested in private space enterprises than in the scientific endeavors. NASA needs to show the world(s) what they can do, and they need to do it in a way that demonstrates their value.
Of course, first Insight has to make the trip and, more far more treacherous, the landing. Insight should touchdown in November of this year.
Images courtesy of NASA