InSight Mars Lander
While Orion is getting close to its first test mission to someday take humans to Mars, an unmanned lander is being assembled to launch in March of 2016. Manned missions might capture public interest and inspire future astronauts everywhere, but unmanned missions collect vast amounts of data with much less cost and lower risk. Landing humans on Mars is decades away and there is still so much to learn about the red planet.
The InSight lander is a part of NASA’s Discovery Program mission and is intended to dig deep and study the interior of Mars. As the closest rocky planet to the Earth, sending a lander to measure Mars’ seismology, internal temperature and behavior as it is affected by the Sun’s gravity and other bodies will give us insight into the formation of these planets. You may think that Mars is just a dryer version of our Earth, but Mars doesn’t have tectonic plates. Therefore, very little has changed internally since the planet formed its crust, mantle and core through internal heating and differentiation. Understanding the composition of Mars gives researchers clues into the processes that created these rocky planets, including our own.
InSight is a relatively safe and cost effective mission since we have been to Mars once before. Modeled after the Phoenix mission that landed on Mars in 2007 and sampled its the north pole, the design is being repurposed for this mission. Recycling the design saves on cost and technology development, while providing extensive data on planet formation.
Now that I have been entirely practical and judicious about the benefits of unmanned space missions, I can now revert back to the Trekky that I truly am. No matter how practical these unmanned missions are, sending people into space is the stuff dreams are made of. Exploration of interstellar space has inspired humans since we could look up at the stars and created some of our favorite TV shows and movies, while propelling us to the moon. It may have less to offer science but it pushes us to create new technologies that keep humans alive in space for long periods of time and protect them from exposure to harmful radiation.
With this in mind, Orion’s first test flight is quickly approaching. On December 4th, Orion has a 2 hour and 39 minute launch window at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Strapped to a Delta IV Heavy rocket, Orion will lift off around 7:05 EST and orbit the Earth twice before reentering the atmosphere. Orion will orbit 15 times higher than the International Space Station, 3,600 miles above Earth. Its reentry at 20,000 mph will test the heat shield at 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit. If all goes well, the capsule will land in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California and will be recovered.