Here it comes! Seven minutes of terror, with survival hanging in the balance! It’s real, and you can live it yourself!
Every now and then, I am reminded of how incredible it is to live now. So many things would not just be amazing to nearly all of our Ancestors, but often would be literally indescribable. November 26, 2018, is yet another one of those times, and you can live this historic event moment by moment, via online simulcast. How far are we still from Mars? You can see here, where we have a countdown until the landing, and the current distance from the red planet! ***Update. Successful landing! Here is the first picture InSight sent back. **
Landing on Mars is HARD.
On November 26th, 2018, just after 2:00 pm EST (to 3:30 pm EST), NASA will attempt to land the InSight lander onto Mars. This is one of just a handful of attempts that have been made to successfully land spacecraft on Mars. This extremely difficult task has very often been met with destruction, as the efforts of hundreds of the best minds on Earth end up failing to land the spacecraft successfully. Of the 17 attempts to land on Mars, only 6 have been successful, for a ~65% failure rate. Most of these have burned up in the Martian atmosphere, while the fate of many of them is still a mystery, even after many years. Failures have come from attempts by the United States, by the European Space Agency, and by the Soviet Union.
You Can Experience this Historic Moment
Not only do we get to live when we are actually attempting land on another world, but through technology, we can experience it moment by moment, by simulcast! The few meager pennies* we each have pooled has made this possible. The simulcast can be accessed on NASA TV, NASA.gov/live, YouTube.com/NASAJPL/live and Ustream.tv/NASAJPL. Check it out!
What Needs to Happen for Success
We get to experience this live, and we can do so while understanding what each part of the landing requires. Part of the reason it is so hard to land on Mars is that Mars has a thin atmosphere – both too thick to ignore, yet too thin to provide very strong use of parachutes at the end of the landing stage. The many different methods – from bouncing balloons to counter-blast rockets – which have been tried are too extensive to describe in detail here, but I encourage anyone interested to look into the many methods tried. A really cool video + description of the full landing sequence planned for this attempt is described here. The main phases of this daring landing are Entry, Descent, and Landing.
Since it’s launch back at Beltaine, the spacecraft has been together as one unit. As it approaches Mars at speeds over 10,000 miles an hour, the unit containing the solar panels (top) will separate from the entry capsule (bottom), with the entry capsule in free fall towards Mars. The only thing slowing down our spacecraft at this point will be friction with the thin Martian atmosphere. The heat shield will glow with heat of entry, reaching temperatures around 2,700 F.
If the heatshield survives, our spacecraft will hopefully have slowed to around 4,000 miles per hour. It will be approaching terminal velocity, and so will need additional means to slow it’s descent further. When going around 1,000 miles per hour, the parachute will deploy, which will slow it further. During this deceleration, the heat shield is jettisoned, exposing the InSight lander, with it’s shock absorbing legs facing down.
At 1 km (over a half mile) above the Martian surface, the lander literally drops off the capsule! Yes, the plan is to simply drop it off from the parachute, so it will free-fall towards the surface! Help me out here, but to me, this seems extremely risky. I have to remind myself of how much work has gone into this decision, and that those doing so understand what’s involved here much better than I. I’ve dropped things from far above the ground, and they tumble and turn.
Tumbling and turning is not the plan here, however. After some free-fall, the lander will fire rockets to slow and control it’s fall, setting it gently onto the rocky surface of an alien planet. All of the steps above seem hard enough, but the last seconds before landing seem hard to me too. How can we know when to turn off the rockets? A couple seconds too soon, and the landers drops onto the surface, smashing to bits (remember that at about 1/1000th of Earth atmosphere, things fall nearly as fast as in a vacuum – imagine a feather smashing to the ground as fast as a dropped rock). But a couple of seconds too late, and the rockets blast against the rock, potentially flipping the lander over (it has no rockets on the top surface). Timing it perfectly, wow!
If all that goes well, and no instruments are damaged, and they all work as planned, millions of miles from anyone who can service them (imagine the last time you set up any complicated system……), then InSight will give us a lot of information about the geology of Mars. InSight stands for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport. It will deploy a robotic arm, drill into Mars, measure heat flow, winds, seismic activity (Marsquakes!), and more, while taking pictures and relaying these scientific data back to us on Earth.
Did you know of this before this month? Have you been informed of this, as it developed since being planned in 2012? Was this a lead story in our news for years? No. I know that we have had important stuff (democracy in America is in peril, after all) – but would even a few minutes every few months amid all the football, Kardashians, and Justin Bieber been too hard to cover? I don’t put all or even most of the blame on the media. After all, this is capitalism – the media is driven by ratings, and hence they supply what they estimate people want. I blame mostly our culture. A culture that cares more about suppressing blacks who kneel during the national anthem or are unhappy that Christmas isn’t forced on everyone more than it already is than about the tremendous achievements we are accomplishing.
Can you imagine describing this one of your Ancestors from 5,000 years ago? Even convincing her or him that the Earth is not flat, and that Mars is truly another whole world (or even that most people really don’t have to worry where the next meal is coming from, or that some people have automatically heating houses) would be hard enough, even before the science of atmospheric frictional heating or what the heck a “seismometer” is? But no, with all that astounding wonder, even an attempt at a Mars landing gets barely a whisper in our culture, and most people won’t know it happened, if they would even care. Still, I don’t see this as something to be discouraged about, but rather a reminder of how vital, how massively important, our work together in building a reality based culture of wonder and awe, is.
Thank you for doing your part – and I hope we all see a successful landing! I don’t have a ritual written out, but I have performed a short ritual which brought this up and called to both our Ancestors and future generations. Even though my little ritual won’t make a successful landing any more likely, it does great things for me. Blessed be.
* With planning and work from 2012 to 2018, this cost each of us only 44 cents per year. By comparison, the Iraq War cost 2,900 times as much ($2,400 billion vs. $0.83 billion). That’s right, instead of invading Iraq, we could have sent literally thousands of these landers across the solar system and still had money left over.
The Author: Jon Cleland Host
Starstuff, Contemplating: We are assemblages of ancient atoms forged in stars – atoms organized by history to the point of consciousness, now able to contemplate this sacred Universe of which we are a tiny, but wondrous, part.
Dr. Jon Cleland Host is a scientist who earned his PhD in materials science at Northwestern University & has conducted research at Hemlock Semiconductor and Dow Corning since 1997. He holds eight patents and has authored over three dozen internal scientific papers and eleven papers for peer-reviewed scientific journals, including the journal Nature. He has taught classes on biology, math, chemistry, physics and general science at Delta College and Saginaw Valley State University. Jon grew up near Pontiac, and has been building a reality-based spirituality for over 30 years, first as a Catholic and now as a Unitarian Universalist, including collaborating with Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow to spread the awe and wonder of the Great Story of our Universe (see www.thegreatstory.org, and the blog at evolutionarytimes.org). Jon and his wife have four sons, whom they embrace within a Universe-centered, Pagan, family spirituality. He currently moderates the yahoo group Naturalistic Paganism.