NASA’s InSight Mars lander successfully touched down on the red planet on Monday, but its mission is just beginning. After a harrowing descent, as the dust began to settle and NASA officials celebrated the feat, InSight sent back its first image of the monochrome landscape — clearly visible, though somewhat obscured by a dusty lens. This quick turnaround may suggest that InSight is about to unlock the secrets of the red planet any second now, but there’s a good reason that the process will actually move pretty slowly during the early days of its mission.
In the coming weeks, the lander will begin deploying its instruments, with which it will probe the subsurface of Mars. InSight stands for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy, and Heat Transport, a mouthful of jargon that hints at the lander’s mission: to determine the geological properties of the planet.
But before NASA engineers can even begin deploying InSight’s instruments — which include a probe to investigate the thermal properties of Martian soil and a seismometer to record Marsquakes — they need to analyze the lander’s position on Elysium Planitia, a flat plane near the planet’s equator. And though InSight’s rapid descent to the planet’s surface took a mere seven minutes, this analysis could take weeks.
Once Earth-based scientists better understand the ground beneath the lander, explained InSight Principal Investigator William “Bruce” Banerdt on Monday after the landing, they will be able to determine the best way to place the instruments. “We’ll be studying [the lander footpad] in the next couple days, looking at the amount of dirt on it, looking at the kind of dust, trying to figure out what the distribution of particle sizes, and all this kind of stuff that’s really critical to putting our instruments down on the surface,” Banerdt announced at Monday’s press conference, which can be seen in the video above. Because of the complicated process of figuring out where to place the instruments, Banerdt said there won’t be any results within the first weeks of InSight’s 1-Martian-year-long mission.
“We’re gonna be spending the next couple of weeks looking at that ground and finding exactly the best place to put our seismometers down,” he said. Since the lander brought along just one set of instruments, scientists and engineers need to take every possible precaution to make them count.
Fortunately, early signs suggest that InSight is on the right track. In the video above, Banerdt points out how InSight’s first image sent to Earth shows that the lander is in a prime spot. “It’s a very, very nice-looking picture. It looks pretty flat,” he said. “We’re very level. I think that we’re less than two degrees of tilt, which makes our job very easy to do. And it’s time to get going!”
As it gets going, InSight will use its robotic arm to place the seismometer on the planet’s surface, where it will detect Marsquakes and transmit these data back to Earth. In addition to the seismometer, InSight will also hammer its Mole HP3 probe down into the ground. There, it will detect temperatures and send out pulses of heat and detect how quickly the surrounding soil returns to a normal temperature. This will give scientists an idea of how the temperature of Mars’ crust changes as it goes down, as well as insight into the soil’s thermal properties.
These experiments promise to reveal new information about the planet’s composition and origins, but we’ll need to be a little patient for the lander to get the ball rolling.
Despite the seemingly slow pace, NASA scientists are thrilled. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine put forth an optimistic stance after the landing, drawing a clear line between InSight’s successful landing and eventual human settlements:
“Ultimately, the day is coming where we land humans on Mars.”