Science, Now + Beyond

As InSight lands on Mars, we see a reflection of ourselves

The InSight lander is the eighth time we've landed a mobile laboratory on Mars, and it shows the universe the best that humanity has to offer.

The videos of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) mission control showed anxious scientists glued to screens. Some milled with nerves, while others chewed their lower lips. After a 7 minute wait without updates, a scientist excitedly announced, “Touchdown confirmed!”

JPL team celebrates the landing of InSight via Giphy

The room exploded with excitement – from cheers to secret handshakes and jubilation. InSight had made its way to the martian soil – landed safely, and confirmed its arrival with a selfie.

InSight’s landing is the eighth time we’ve stationed a mobile laboratory on the red planet – and its mission is one of the boldest yet. With InSight’s help, we intend to dig deep into Mars’ crust to measure seismic activity, and most importantly, see if there is liquid water on the planet.

InSight is short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport. Now that it is located on the red planet, InSight will employ a probe that will burrow deep into the Martian crust. There, it will evaluate planetary conditions like heat. Meanwhile, a surface-based seismograph will track tectonic activity on the planet. Finally, the last of InSight’s major instruments is a radio antenna that will monitor Mars’ north pole, and record the effects that the Sun has on it as solar winds batter the weak martian atmosphere.

The InSight Mission also employed the use of two small satellites, called CubeStats. The CubeStat satellites, called Mars CubeOne or MarCO, are designed to test out the opportunity for small satellites to be used in communications. MarCO was critical in making sure that InSight’s successful landing was transmitted quickly to the team at JPL.

The goal of this mission is to take the ‘vital signs’ of Mars to try and build a hypothesis about the formation of how the rocky planets in our solar system formed.

Earth, like Mars, is a rocky planet. By leaving our atmosphere and exploring that of our closest neighbor, we’ll be able to learn more about ourselves. In this way, Mars, and in a greater sense, the landers that we’ve flung across the cosmos to it, are the mirror that with which, we study ourselves.

Amazingly, in eight missions to Mars, we seem to have learned more about humanity, than the planet that we are so fascinated about.

That is because humanity isn’t simply intrigued by the red planet, we are dazzled and in love with it. Every machine we send hurtling into the cosmos is almost an honorary human. We love the little robots that track in the sand and dirt. When the rover Spirit was decommissioned after becoming stuck in soft soil, people mourned our loss.

When Spirit’s sister rover, Opportunity, became lost in a dust storm in June 2018, scientists extended hope that it would re-awake in a few months after there was time to brush the dust off its solar panels. It’s the kind of hope you hold out for a missed text message or a friend lost at sea.

Every year, hundreds of people take to Twitter to wish Curiosity a happy birthday and sing along with a Terran expat who sings into the martian sol without an audience. It’s a song, composed of mechanical whines and whirs, a promethean gift that scientists gave to a machine as a token of humanity.

The human history of space exploration is a history of the best we have to offer. From a gold disk onboard Voyager, bringing our worldwide conscience to the cosmos, to singing robots and the martyrdom of Cassini, we reach into the void of the universe not in colonialism, but in peace. We endeavor to be our best selves to the audience of stars.

Thanks to NASA and JPL, our best is always on display.