Science: Mars Beckons

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

The science and technology behind NASA’s latest space explorer to land on Mars are so awe-inducing that it’s hardly surprising when scientists commenting on the triumph drop their usual jargon to speak like excited schoolchildren.

“It’s nice and dirty; I like that,” was how Bruce Banerdt, the principal investigator behind the InSight mission, reacted when, shortly after setting down Monday on the flat and featureless Martian plain known as the Elysium Planitia, the lander beamed back an image speckled with red dust. “This image is actually a really good argument for why you put a dust cover on a camera. Good choice, right?”

Or there was Tom Hoffman, the InSight project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, declaring himself “very, very happy” with the boring landing site. “They promised me sandy with no rocks,” he said. Then, looking at that first image, he added, “But there’s one rock, so I might have to talk with them about that.”

Anyone who’d mistake that tone for world-weariness need only watch the video of the reaction at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., when, after tracking a harrowing seven-minute descent, the announcer proclaimed, “Touchdown confirmed.” The hall full of women and men who had dedicated years to getting InSight onto the red planet went bonkers. “My inner 4-year-old came out,” Mr. Hoffman confessed.

InSight is not a first. It’s the eighth successful landing on Mars since 1976, when Viking 1 became the first spacecraft to land and work on the planet, and the 45th exploratory mission of any kind since 1960. Currently, the NASA rover Curiosity is on Mars rolling around on its six aluminum wheels searching for evidence of once-upon-a-time life; another, Opportunity, went into hibernation during a dust storm in June and may never awaken.

But each mission is different, facing different dangers and different challenges. InSight’s landing alone was an extraordinary feat, as the craft had to slow down from 12,300 miles per hour to about 5 m.p.h. at a precise 12 degree angle, all within what scientists and engineers have dubbed “seven minutes of terror,” to land on the Elysium Planitia. The landing was monitored by two mini-spacecraft, each about the size of a briefcase, whose flight was a cosmic first of its own.

What for? A random sampling of comments from the public suggests not everyone is convinced that digging on Mars is money well spent. But the basic answer is that whether it’s practical or not, humans will continue to explore the heavens so long as the moon, Mars and the myriad celestial bodies beyond fire our imagination and curiosity. What happened in the earliest days of the universe? How were Earth and its fellow planets formed? And the question of questions: Is there life out there?

Mars may not have all the answers, but for now it’s the most accessible other planet for detailed studies. And unlike on Earth, on Mars surface evidence of how our solar system was formed has not been totally eroded away. And life! Earlier rovers found evidence of water; NASA’s coming Mars 2020 mission will have even finer tools to search for ancient biology. And after that, an earthling may actually put a footprint into the red dust.

 

Guest Editorial