InSight on Mars: Now What?

Another robotic lander is on Mars.

InSight landed last Monday, November 26, 2018. Folks at NASA and JPL are happy about that.

The lander has taken a few pictures and started sending back weather reports. The mission’s main ‘science’ work won’t start for another month or so. They’re hoping to learn more about what’s deep inside Mars. I’ll talk about that, too; and why I’m looking forward to whatever they discover.

Martian Speculation and Science

Thinking Mars might be a colder, drier and smaller version of Earth was reasonable from the mid-1600s to around 1900. (February 16, 2018; December 16, 2016)

Percival Lowell’s canal-building Martians may have been the last serious speculation about Martian civilizations.

I gather that most scientists didn’t take his ideas about a desperate civilization’s struggles on a dying world very seriously. I think they had good reasons. (October 13, 2017)

That didn’t keep science fiction writers and artists from imagining a Lowellian Mars, and that’s another topic.

“A Mighty Soberin Thought”

(From NASA/JPL-Caltech, used w/o permission.)

I’m not sure how many Christians believe that science and religion are at war. Or that someone can’t be Christian and acknowledge what we’ve learned since Babylonian astrologers were at the cutting edge of what’s now astronomy.

I’m a Christian, living in the 21st-century.

I could, in principle, try believing that Babylonian cosmology was true. By today’s scientific standards.

Or that Aristotle’s spheres accurately describe this universe.

I could also try believing that the Tooth Fairy lives next to Santa at the North Pole. But I won’t.

I can appreciate poetic imagery, Biblical and otherwise, and enjoy flights of fancy.

But I don’t see a point in trying to believe that Wordsworth actually saw “…a host, of golden daffodils; … fluttering and dancing in the breeze….” Coleridge might have, or imagined he had. We’ve learned that laudinum, although an effective painkiller, isn’t always the best choice.

I’m a Christian and a Catholic, so rejecting what we’ve learned in the last half-millennium isn’t necessary. Or, I think, a good idea.

We live in a magnificent universe. We’ve known that — probably from day one, certainly since folks started recording ideas in writing.

“God looked at everything he had made, and found it very good. Evening came, and morning followed—the sixth day.”
(Genesis 1:31)

“All your works give you thanks, LORD and your faithful bless you.
“Our God is in heaven and does whatever he wills.”
(Psalms 115:3)

“They speak of the glory of your reign and tell of your mighty works,
“Making known to the sons of men your mighty acts, the majestic glory of your rule.”
(Psalms 145:1012)

“Indeed, before you the whole universe is like a grain from a balance, or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth.
“But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things; and you overlook sins for the sake of repentance.
“For you love all things that are and loathe nothing that you have made; for you would not fashion what you hate.
“How could a thing remain, unless you willed it; or be preserved, had it not been called forth by you?”
(Wisdom 11:2225)

The way I see it, we live in a magnificent universe. God is large and in charge. What keeps changing is how much we know about how this reality works.

What we learn won’t force someone to think God is there. But paying attention to and thinking about what we see can lead us to that knowledge. There’s more to faith than reason, but reason and faith get along. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 3135, 50)

We have free will. I can decide to use my brain — or ignore what my reason tells me is true. (Catechism, 1704, 17301738)

Science and religion both pursue truth:

“It’s something too many of us forget, that reality has layers. Occasionally people ask me how I can be Catholic and a science journalist. The answer is simple: Truth does not contradict truth. Both science and religion are pursuit of truth. They’re after different aspects of truth, different layers of reality, but they’re still both fundamentally about truth….”
(Camille M. Carlisle, Sky and Telescope (June, 2017))

“Religion and natural science are fighting a joint battle in an incessant, never relaxing crusade against skepticism and against dogmatism, against disbelief and against superstition, and the rallying cry in this crusade has always been, and always will be: ‘On to God!'”
(“Religion and Natural Science,” Max Planck (1937) translation via Wikiquote)

“…Even if the difficulty is after all not cleared up and the discrepancy seems to remain, the contest must not be abandoned; truth cannot contradict truth….”
(“Providentissimus Deus,” Pope Leo XIII (November 18, 1893))

Refusing to learn about the wonders and beauties surrounding us is also possible. But I think it’s a poor way of showing admiration for God’s work.

God gives us brains and a thirst for truth. Seeking truth, using our God-given brains, is a good idea. (Catechism, 27, 50, 159, 214217, 283, 294, 341, 355379)

Sometimes we find truths that don’t match what we expected.

Stalwartly defending obsolete ideas is possible. But probably not prudent. Priestley’s unyielding allegiance to phlogiston theory — is yet another topic.

I’d much rather accept previously-unknown truths as more reasons to appreciate the reality we’re in. And accept the new questions they raise as puzzles that may not be solved in my lifetime.

One of the most lucid discussions of what we’re learning about life and the universe is in, of all things, a 1950s comic strip.

“I been readin’ ’bout how maybe they is planets peopled by folks with ad-vanced brains. On the other hand, maybe we got the most brains…maybe our intellects is the universe’s most ad-vanced. Either way, it’s a mighty soberin thought.”
(Porky Pine, in Walt Kelly’s Pogo (June 20, 1959) via Wikiquote)

InSight on Mars

(From EPL, via BBC News; used w/o permission.)
(“InSight quickly returned its first image from Elysium Planitia”
(BBC News))

Mars: Nasa lands InSight robot to study planet’s interior
Jonathan Amos, BBC News (November 26, 2018)

The US space agency Nasa has landed a new robot on Mars after a dramatic seven-minute plunge to the surface of the Red Planet.

“The InSight probe aims to study the world’s deep interior, and make it the only planet – apart from Earth – that has been examined in this way.

“Confirmation of touchdown came through on cue at 19:53 GMT….”

NASA has been giving more updates than the folks at JPL so far. That may change about 10 weeks from now, when InSight and folks back on Earth finish getting the ‘science’ equipment set up.

I’d like to see more results, faster. I’m pretty sure scientists who’ll be looking at InSight’s data would, too. Probably more so than me.

I’ve read that InSight’s TWINS, Temperature and Winds for InSight, package is up and running. I haven’t confirmed it, though. Spain’s Centro de Astrobiología designed the TWINS weather station and will be running it.

The lander’s ‘weather reports’ will help scientists make sense of data from InSight’s main instrument: a seismometer. Setting it up will take weeks.1

SEIS: Third Time’s the Charm?

Scientists want to be very sure they’re picking the right spot for the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure, SEIS.

After finding a good spot, they’ll have the lander place SEIS on the surface. NASA said that’ll probably be three or four weeks after landing.

Putting a wind and thermal shield on the seismometer will go faster. It should be in place within two weeks of placing SEIS.

That seems like a long time. I figure it’s partly because the scientists know SEIS can’t be moved once it’s in place. And partly because robots that are light, durable and reliable enough for long missions aren’t fast.

CNES, the French Space Agency, designed and produced SEIS, along with an alphabet soup of other outfits and the Max Planck Institute.

SEIS is the third seisomometer placed on Mars. Viking landers carried the first two instruments. The Viking seismometers weren’t as sensitive as InSight’s SEIS, which is probably just as well. They mostly gave scientists information about vibrations made by other devices on the landers. That’s a good reason for planting SEIS directly on the Martian surface.

The Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package, HP3, goes on the surface too. It’s designed to measure heat flowing under the Martian surface. That’ll help scientists figure out how the planet has been changing since its formation.2

InSight’s First Picture

(From NASA/JPL-Caltech, used w/o permission.)
(“This is the first image taken by NASA’s InSight lander on the surface of Mars. … The transparent lens cover was still in place to protect the lens from any dust kicked up during landing.”

That picture came from InSight’s ICC — Instrument Context Camera. Its mounted on the lander’s deck.

“Context” in the name probably reflects the camera’s function. Its 120-degree fisheye lens works with the IDC’s narrower field of view. IDC?? I’ll talk about that later.

Both help folks back on Earth decide where to put equipment like the seismometer. And give folks like me a chance to see Mars from the lander’s viewpoint.

Maybe InSight’s designers could have saved a few bucks by using an opaque lens cap. And hoping that it’d come off after landing. Or omitting the lens cap completely, hoping that they’d be able to see around the dust.

I’m not saying either alternative would have been a good idea. Inexpensive and practical alternatives to high-end solutions are nice. Cheap alternatives? I don’t see “cheap” and “inexpensive” as being quite the same thing.

Another Postcard from Mars

(From NASA/JPL-Caltech, used w/o permission.)
(“This image was acquired on November 26, 2018, Sol 0 where the local mean solar time for the image exposures was 14:04:35. Each IDC image has a field of view of 45 x 45 degrees.”

IDC stands for Instrument Deployment Camera. It’s the ICC’s narrower-field counterpart. At 45 by 45 degrees, the lens isn’t telephoto. The image is a bit like what what I’m used to seeing from my digital camera. Except InSight is on Mars and I’m in Minnesota.

The IDC, mounted on the arm that moves InSight’s instruments, helps folks back on Earth see what they’re doing. Or what they’re telling the lander to do, looking at it another way.

They’ll use the camera to look at equipment on the lander’s deck, and get images of the surrounding terrain. I’ve read that at least some will be stereoscopic.

Aside from letting folks like me see postcards from Mars, images will let scientists learn more about the Martian surface around InSight.

Under the Martian Surface

We know more about Mars than we did when the Mariner 4 flyby showed nothing but craters.

Then Mariner 9 started orbiting Mars, showing us the Tharsis Bulge and what looked like dry river beds. It’s a near-certainty that they look like dry river beds because that’s what they are. Very dry. And very, very old for the most part.

There’s much more left to learn about Mars, including what’s below the surface.

Mars, InSight Mission, NASA

“InSight will study the deep interior of Mars, taking the planet’s vital signs, its pulse and temperature. This makes InSight the first mission to give Mars a thorough checkup since the planet formed 4.5 billion years ago.

“Previous missions to the Red Planet have investigated its surface by studying its canyons, volcanoes, rocks and soil. But the signatures of the planet’s formation can only be found by sensing and studying its vital signs far below the surface….”

We’ve measured Martian surface temperatures before. What’s new this time is a thermometer that’s designed to get under the surface.

InSight’s HP3 experiment will burrow up to five meters below the Martian surface, trailing a tether. That’s the plan.

If it works, scientists will get temperature reports from sensors on the tether, spaced 10 centimeters apart. Data from the heat sensors will help scientists learn more about heat coming from the planet’s core.

I’ve read that InSight’s seismometer is the most important part of the lander’s science package. Maybe that’s accurate, although I suspect most folks see what they do as the most important job. Those who give a rip, at any rate, and that’s yet again another topic.

The seismometer should give scientists a better look at what’s deep inside Mars.

The sort of high-resolution seismic imaging we’ve gotten used to in recent decades will wait until the Martian seismic station network is as extensive and well-equipped as Earth’s.

That may have to wait until folks have started living full-time on Mars. Or our robotic explorers become ‘smarter,’ stronger, faster and much better at self-maintenance.

The two main parts of the Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment, RISE, stay with the lander. RISE data will tell scientists more about Martian rotation and wobble. Someone may see that as the most important part of the InSight mission.

My opinion is that it’ll give us another part of the puzzle. Whether it’s the most important part? That’s likely enough something folks will still be discussing a millennium from now.

In a way, InSight probably won’t tell us anything mind-bogglingly new. What scientists are hoping for is much more accurate and precise data than they’ve had up to now.

As usual, I’ve put ‘resource’ links at the end of this post.3

Terrestrial Planets

Mars is a terrestrial planet, but not what many might think of as ‘Earth-like.’

Quite a few folks say “Earth analog” when they mean something like Star Trek’s “Class M” planet. That’d be a planet or moon with a surface environment like Earth’s. For planetary scientists, a terrestrial planet is one with a solid surface and layers of silicate rocks over a metal core.

Leave “planet” out — and at least a modest-sized metal inner core — and that describes Earth’s moon, two or more of Jupiter’s moons and at least one of Saturn’s.

Titania, one of Neptune’s moons, may have a rocky core too. A small one, probably not enough to make Titania “terrestrial.”

Io, Europa and Enceladus aren’t even close to being Star Trek’s “Class M” worlds. What might make them terrestrial is their internal structure. We’re quite sure they’re mostly rock inside. And maybe some metal. Unless there’s something seriously amiss with our current understanding of physics, which doesn’t seem likely.

I’m not sure how many planetary scientists would describe those moons as “terrestrial” in the structural sense. I’m not even sure that the ‘is Pluto a planet?’ debate is over.

Titan, Saturn’s moon, isn’t “terrestrial.” Not by today’s planetary science definition. We’re pretty sure Titan’s core is mostly hydrous silicates: a sort of “rock” that’s silicone, oxygen and hydrogen. Earth’s silicate rocks are silicone, oxygen and other elements.4

Oddly enough, Titan’s more like Earth in other ways than either Io or Europa. Or any other world we’ve found. So far. (September 15, 2017)


Of the Solar System’s ‘terrestrial’ moons and four rocky planets, there’s life on only one that we know of: Earth.

Europa’s under-the-ice ocean could probably support living critters. That’s one reason so many scientists want to learn more about it.

We know more about why Earth is habitable for critters like us than we did in, say, 1898. That’s when a “Startling Scientific Prediction” hit the news.

Lord Kelvin’s math, as reported in Cassel’s Magazine and repeated in the Evening Post, was accurate enough. So, likely enough, was his data. He apparently figured we’d run out of coal in 500 years.

That wasn’t the bad news. The coming fuel shortage wouldn’t matter. At late-19th century consumption rates, humanity had all the all the coal we’d ever need.

Mainly because we’d all suffocate in about four centuries, when coal fires burned through the last of Earth’s oxygen.

And you thought today’s climate change news was bad. (August 11, 2017)

Still-Unanswered Questions

Like I said, we’ve learned more about how Earth works. But we’re still not sure why our world still has oceans, while Venus and Mars don’t.

Maybe it has something to do with Earth’s comparatively lively geological processes.

Venus has two highland areas that’d be continents if the planet had oceans. The largest is about Australia’s size. We’re pretty sure at least some Venusian mountains are volcanic. And ‘new’ by cosmic standards.5

But there’s little or no sign that the planet’s ‘ocean’ beds get recycled. That’s happening on Earth, and may be why Earth isn’t like Venus. Maybe Martian highlands didn’t quite become distinct continents because Mars was too small. Then again, maybe not.

Today’s Mars may have more water than we thought after Mariner 4 and before Mariner 9. There may even be life there, or fossils of critters that lived in the brief Martian ‘spring.’

I’ve seen informed opinions on Martian life go from ‘quite likely’ to ‘highly improbable.’ Finding evidence of liquid water, lots of it, below the surface is helping swing that pendulum back toward ‘likely.’ So has what we’re learning about how planets form.

Whether or not we find vast aquifers or life on Mars, I think studying the planet will help us learn how terrestrial planets in general develop. Besides satisfying scientific curiosity, that’ll help us do one of our jobs: taking care of our world.

And that’s still another topic.

Admiring and studying this magnificent universe:

1 A new Martian science station:

2 Measuring the Martian interior:

3 Measuring wobbles and seismic sounds:

4 Worlds, Earth-like and otherwise:

5 Learning about Earth and this universe:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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