InSight's Best Moments
December 21, 2022
On Nov. 26, 2018, NASA’s Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission touched down on the surface of Mars. Designed and built by Lockheed Martin, the Mars lander continued performing well past its intended two-year mission, finally retiring in December 2022.
Here are some of InSight’s best mission moments – and the insights these moments gave us into Mars’ inner workings – as told by those who worked on the mission for many years.
Where it all began: surviving the seven minutes of terror – In order to even make it to Mars’ surface in 2018 to do all its cool science, InSight had to perform a harrowing entry, descent and landing sequence famously known as the ‘seven minutes of terror’ for its technical complexity and because signal delays preclude humans from interfering if something goes wrong. Not only did InSight survive, but it returned one of the coolest first photos ever (and yes, it made us tear up).
“After all the time I’ve spent working on this mission, it’s hard to narrow down one favorite moment, but I guess it would have to be the moment we confirmed safe touchdown on Mars. It was only then that I knew that all the heart and soul (and time!) I had put into InSight over the years was really going to pay off. No matter what happened after that, we were safely on Mars, and we were going to do what we had been dreaming of and planning for years.”
The first ever detection of a marsquake – In April 2019, after months of hearing only wind and surface noises, InSight became the first spacecraft to measure a marsquake. During its mission, InSight recorded 1,300+ seismic events, some at magnitudes greater than 4. These marsquakes detected by InSight are helping scientists understand how Mars and other rocky planets (like Earth) formed.
“Dec. 25, 2021, Marsquake. What an amazing Christmas present.”
Observing eclipses from Phobos and Deimos (Mars’ moons) – In addition to observing plenty of Martian weather phenomenon, data from InSight’s solar arrays was precise enough to observe the eclipse of both of Mars’ moons! Dips in the lander’s energy corresponded with each moon passing overhead.
“With how sensitive InSight’s instruments are, we could notice a dip in the solar array current and in our temperature sensors on the outside of the spacecraft because of these celestial bodies passing overhead. As a thermal engineer, seeing our environmental temperatures dip from these eclipses was a favorite moment of mine.”
👀 Blink and you’ll miss it...👀— NASA InSight (@NASAInSight) March 12, 2019
I’ve been eclipse-watching on Mars! Watch this series of pics closely, as shadows move and brightness briefly dips when Mars’ moon Phobos passes in front of the Sun. pic.twitter.com/nmPBlJhDNh
Discovery of Mars’ molten core – InSight was the first Mars spacecraft to give us glimpses into the planet’s interior composition. InSight’s data confirmed that Mars’ core is molten and helped scientists measure its size (1,120 miles, or about 1,800 kilometers in radius). Learning about Mars’ core in turn helps us understand the planet’s formation.
“The science of InSight is a slow burn. We learn about the interior by bootstrapping from the new interpretation of one quake, or family of quakes, to the next. Slowly we are learning to read the language of marsquakes to paint a more precise picture of the interior.”
The largest meteor impact ever witnessed on Mars – In December 2021, InSight witnessed a magnitude 4 marsquake that images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter confirmed was caused by a meteoroid strike near Mars’ equator. The quake – one of the biggest meteoroid strikes witnessed on Mars – pushed ice chunks in Mars’s crust to the surface. The presence of ice so close to the Martian equator bodes well for human travel to Mars, as astronauts can take advantage of finding and using ice while living in one of the warmest parts of the planet. Talk about impactful work!
Clearing dust with…dirt? – With time, dust settled on InSight’s solar arrays as expected, slowly draining the lander’s power. The team tossed around several ideas for cleaning the dust off – restarting the descent engines to kick up dust, or somehow shaking out the arrays – before landing on something unconventional: using Mars dirt. Engineers leveraged the lander’s arm to scoop dirt onto the solar arrays. Angling the scoops in precisely the right way allowed the team to use the wind to their advantage, resulting in the larger chunks of dirt catching and clearing away the dust.
“My biggest personal surprise was when I looked at telemetry, and it showed that the dust dump actually worked. It was a Saturday, but I immediately drafted an email to the team and titled it something like, ‘Wow, it actually worked’ and showed a plot of the solar array telemetry with an instantaneous boost in array performance – lining up exactly with the timing of the dump of dirt.”
A new safe mode tech crucial for survival – While previous landers like NASA's Lockheed Martin-built Phoenix lander only monitored energy levels via its batteries, InSight was engineered with a landed modeled energy feature that measures energy levels via its batteries and its solar panels. This new fault protection feature helped InSight survive several dust storms throughout its mission by detecting darkening skies and low energy levels faster – and then initiating safe mode.
“In January 2022, InSight experienced an intense dust storm that activated this special feature. This storm was so much more severe than the previous things we’d seen, and – while it was a contingency situation – seeing the safeguard work exactly like it was supposed to was exciting and rewarding.”