NASA's new Mars mission just landed — and it could reveal why Earth is habitable but the red planet is not

  • NASA just successfully landed its InSight robot on the surface of Mars.
  • InSight won't move around Mars, but it will be the first mission to take the red planet's temperature.
  • NASA will also listen for Mars quakes caused by meteorite impacts and tectonic movements. The vibrations could help scientists decipher the interior structure of the planet.
  • Scientists hope InSight will help answer questions about how rocky planets become habitable (like Earth) or inhospitable (like Mars).

While online shoppers celebrated Cyber Monday deals, NASA researchers cheered the successful landing of a new probe on Mars.

The roughly $830 million mission is called InSight, short for "Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport."

NASA rocketed its 789-pound robot toward Mars on May 5, and InSight completed a treacherous 14-minute descent to the Martian surface at 2:54 p.m. ET on Monday. The spacecraft confirmed its safe arrival with a beep — a moment that sent scientists and engineers jumping and screaming for joy in mission control at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

A wide-angle photo of the red planet taken from about 4,700 miles away by NASA's experimental Mars Cube One satellites.
NASA/JPL-Caltech

InSight was trailed by two briefcase-size satellites called Mars Cube One (MarCO) during its seven-month-long journey through deep space. The duo helped record and relay crucial landing data to NASA mission control, and one of the small satellites, called MarCO-B, took a photograph after InSight touched down.

Monday's Mars landing was the first since the nuclear-powered Curiosity rover reached the red planet's surface more than six years ago.

Read more: 13 incredible facts you probably didn't know about Mars

Planetary scientists did not immediately put InSight to work, though, because the robot kicked up a lot of dust while landing, delaying the unfurling of its solar panels. It also took several hours for satellites that orbit Mars to fly over the site and confirm InSight's ability to gather energy, which they did around 8:30 p.m. EST.

"The InSight team can rest a little easier tonight now that we know the spacecraft solar arrays are deployed and recharging the batteries," Tom Hoffman, the InSight mission's project manager, said in a press release. "It's been a long day for the team. But tomorrow begins an exciting new chapter for InSight: surface operations and the beginning of the instrument deployment phase."

An illustration of NASA's InSight probe with its solar panels unfurled on Mars' surface.
Lockheed Martin/YouTube

The spacecraft is now poised to probe Mars over the next two Earth years in ways researchers had only dreamed about.

"InSight's a very different mission in the sense that it is peering into the past by studying, really, the interior of Mars," Robert Braun, NASA's former chief technologist and a technical consultant for National Geographic's "Mars" series, previously told Business Insider. "In doing so, we're going to learn about Mars, but also about the early history of the Earth."

Here's what NASA hopes to discover with InSight now that the probe has arrived safely and is soaking in sunlight.

Why NASA landed InSight on a flat, boring-looking Martian plain

Shortly after NASA's InSight lander touched down on the Martian surface, the robot took this photo. The image shows the spacecraft's instrument deck and the flat plains of Elysium Planitia.
NASA/JPL-Caltech

InSight landed on Mars at a place known as Elysium Planitia, a relatively flat region free of boulders, craters, and other potentially mission-ending obstacles.

The location might seem boring — certainly compared with the ancient mountain that Curiosity is climbing — but researchers say InSight is well-positioned to pull off an unprecedented scientific mission.

Elysium Planitia is just north of the Martian equator, where the sun's rays are relatively strong year-round. Using two circular solar panels to capture that free energy, InSight could operate for two Earth years, or about one Martian year.

NASA landed its InSight robot at Elysium Planitia, near the Martian equator.
NASA; Business Insider

That's a huge difference from InSight's nearly identical predecessor, the Phoenix Mars Lander.

Phoenix landed in 2008 and dug for water ice near Mars' north pole. But the robot died after a few months because the sunlight was too feeble to warm its electronics.

InSight is equipped with different scientific instruments, though, and researchers think the soil at Elysium Planitia will be loose enough to allow the robot to pound a heat probe deep into the ground.

That will help InSight perform the first "checkup" of the 4.6-billion-year-old planet.

"InSight's goal is to study the interior of Mars and take the planet's vital signs, its pulse, and temperature," NASA says on its mission website. "To look deep into Mars, the lander must be at a place where it can stay still and quiet for its entire mission. That's why scientists chose Elysium Planitia as InSight's home."

Probing the ancient secrets of Mars — and Earth too

A cutaway illustration showing what scientists think Mars' interior might look like.
NASA/JPL

The InSight mission's goal is to figure out how Mars formed and what has happened to the planet since then. Scientists know that Mars once generated an atmosphere-protecting magnetic dynamo, as Earth still does today. But the Martian core's dynamo eventually shut down, and the planet's protective shield faded, allowing the sun to blow away Mars' atmosphere and oceans of water.

Now that InSight is powered up and in touch with Earth, it will use its robotic arm to pluck a dome-shaped instrument off its landing platform and gently place it on the Martian surface. The dome contains six sensitive vibration-detection devices called seismometers.

Seismometers on Earth and the moon (Apollo astronauts deployed some on the lunar surface) have recorded earthquakes and moonquakes, which have helped scientists figure out the internal structure of those rocky worlds. On Mars, NASA researchers hope to accomplish a similar feat: listening for Mars quakes.

Whenever a meteorite strikes Mars, or there's a landslide, or a big blob of magma suddenly shifts, or there's tectonic movement, InSight's seismometers should detect such vibrations. The devices are designed to record seismic activity from all the way across the planet.

Over time, data about Mars quakes could reveal hitherto unknown information about the internal structure of the planet.

The other device InSight will deploy is a 6.5-pound, mole-like heat probe, which will hammer itself into the soil, stopping every so often to heat up. An onboard sensor will then detect how long it takes that warmth to dissipate.

An artist's illustration of the InSight lander on Mars.
NASA/JPL-Caltech

The probe is expected to dig 16 feet down — far deeper than any previous Mars mission has reached with scoops, shovels, or drills.

"When we get down that deep, we'll get away from all of the temperature variations of the surface," Suzanne Smrekar, the mission's deputy principal investigator, said during a press briefing in October. "That tells us about the heat coming out of the planet, that energy that's available for driving geologic activity."

The data will help Smrekar and others calculate how quickly energy in Mars' core can escape — the equivalent of taking the planet's temperature.

That warmth is left over from Mars' formation some 4.6 billion years ago, though it also comes from the decay of radioactive elements. These measurements are critical for decoding the red planet's past, as well as that of Earth and other rocky planets. That's because heat flow from the core can help drive plate tectonics, a factor believed to separate habitable worlds from dead ones.

Researchers can also use the data to figure out whether underground pools of warm water could exist on Mars. Such pools, if present, may support microbial alien life (and provide rich targets for future missions).

Back on the surface, InSight will also use a sensitive radio science experiment to see how subtly Mars wobbles during its orbit around the sun. This data should tell researchers what's going on in the deepest parts of the planet's core.

Bruce Banerdt, the lead scientist of the InSight mission to Mars.
NASA/Bill Ingalls

In probing Mars' history, scientists think we're bound to learn about our own planet's origins.

Earth "is a big planet that holds a lot of heat, a lot of energy, and it's been very geologically active over its entire history — so most of the record of the early processes that formed the Earth have been erased," Hoffman said during NASA's October press briefing. "We'd like to have a planet that's just a little bit calmer and that can retain that evidence."

That makes sedate Mars, which is similar to Earth but has remained almost frozen in time, the perfect place to go looking.

Hilary Brueck contributed reporting.

This story has been updated with new information. It was originally published at 2:54 p.m. EST on November 26, 2018.

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