Here’s What’s Next for NASA’s InSight Mars Lander


NASA’s InSight mission has successfully landed on the red planet, making it the first Mars landing for the agency in six years. With the solar panels deployed, it’s time for the probe to start doing some science, Well, it’s going to prepare to do some science. InSight has to do several months of prep work before most of its instruments will be ready to relay data back to Earth.

There are three major instrument packages on InSight, and perhaps the most famous is the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS). This is the device that will look for earthquakes — rather, marsquakes — by taking seismic readings from the surface. Deploying that instrument on the surface will take time, though.

Over the coming weeks, NASA will study InSight’s landing zone carefully to figure out exactly where it wants to place the seismic sensor. InSight has a 2.4-meter robotic arm to place the instrument, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory will run some simulations with a testbed lander arm here on Earth. Before that can happen, the team plans to alter the testing surface to match InSight’s real landing zone.

NASA likens deploying SEIS to an arcade-style claw game. Operators on Earth have to carefully move the arm into position and place the sensor so it makes good contact with the ground. After placing the sensor, the arm has to repeat the maneuver to drop a shield over the top to protect it from wind and temperature variations. It will be some weeks before NASA is ready to attempt this.

InSight also has a probe called the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3). Unlike the seismic sensor, this one actually goes inside the planet. The instrument is like a “self-hammering nail” that will drive itself up to 5 meters (16 feet) into the planet. NASA projects several months for the probe to reach the desired depth.

HP3 drags a tether along with it, connecting it to the lander. The tether has a temperature sensor every 10 cm. Those embedded sensors will provide data about heat movement inside the planet, which could tell us about the core and its history.

The last primary instrument on InSight is the only one that doesn’t need additional setup. The Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment (RISE) will use the lander’s X band radio to take precise rotational readings. Building on data from the Viking and Pathfinder missions, RISE will help NASA track Mars’ axial direction, precession, and so on.

NASA expects InSight to begin its science operations early next year. In the meantime, you can enjoy its cheeky Twitter account.

Now read: NASA Selects Ancient Crater Lake as Landing Site for Future Mars Rover, NASA Wants to Make Rocket Fuel From Martian Soil, and NASA Will Use ISS Supercomputer for Science Experiments