Why the NASA InSight Lander Can't Help Troubled Opportunity Rover

When it arrives in November, there won't be much it can do.

NASA’s Opportunity rover is still napping after an intense Martian dust storm, and its partner rover, Spirit, is already dead (Rest in Power, Spirit). The one sign of US technological life on the red planet is Curiosity, which is currently on a trek to the base of Mount Sharp. So what’s in store for InSight when it lands — successfully, we hope — on November 26? Landing is notoriously difficult, but researchers at MIT developed a program to take some mystery out of deciding where to land)

InSight will have the least-energetic welcome party you can imagine. The remains of Russia’s unmanned probes, Mars 2 and Mars 3 did make it to their namesake, but Mars 2 crashed near the Hellas basin, while Mars 3 became the first craft to actually land at the Ptolemaeus Crater and successfully transmit a signal (albeit for 14.5 seconds). If you’re wondering what happened to Mars 1, Russia only intended for it to make a drive-by.

NASA Opportunity Rover
The Opportunity rover

NASA’s contribution to the welcome party includes Sojourner, Curiosity, and twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity.

InSight (which stands for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) is poised to land at Planitia Elysium, which translates to the flat surface of paradise. Hopefully this paradise doesn’t include dust storms. NASA chose Planitia Elysium for its location close to the equator (for solar panel charging purposes) and ideal surface for drilling deeper into the surface. This puts InSight’s landing site a “mere” 550 kilometers away from Curiosity’s current location, aka too far to be featured in one of Curiosity’s selfies. Maybe if InSight brought a long-range selfie stick they can figure something out.

Spirit and Opportunity are much farther out, at 1,615 miles and 5,220 miles away, respectively. Opportunity will be the width of two continental United States, end to end, away from the landing InSight.

Plus, since InSight is a launcher meant to stay in place to perform its experiments, it won’t be interacting with its NASA brethren.

Map of previous Mars mission landing sites by NASA
InSight will be landing on Elysium Planitia, an ideal location to both use its scientific instruments and charge its solar panels.

What the Mars InSight Lander Will Do

But InSight’s objectives will keep it plenty busy. Assuming it lands on schedule on November 26, 2018, after 301 million miles (485 million kilometers) of travel, InSight will begin to give Mars its first checkup.

Unlike previous missions that literally scratched the surface of the red planet, InSight will go deeper. The nearly 800-pound, 5- by 19-foot, solar-powered lander has two main objectives.

This artist's concept from August 2015 depicts NASA's InSight Mars lander fully deployed for studying the deep interior of Mars.
This artist's concept from August 2015 depicts NASA's InSight Mars lander fully deployed for studying the deep interior of Mars.

First, InSight will delve into the core to learn how rocky planets (read: Earth) form and evolve. While Earth has evolved too far to properly examine its early formation, traveling to Mars is like visiting a time capsule that could shed light on our own planetary origins.

Second, marsquakes! Seismic waves pass through each layer of the planet, so by collecting seismographic data, NASA can take an X-ray of the planet. NASA hasn’t attempted to collect this information since the Viking missions in the late 1970s, where noisiness of the data rendered it unhelpful.

Here’s hoping the plain of paradise awaiting InSight is everything NASA scientists are hoping and more.

Now watch this: Jeremy Travels to California, Doesn’t See the Mars InSight Launch


Correction 12/12/18: This article has been updated to clarify the correct conversion of kilometers from 301 million miles of travel.