Scientists at Oregon State University played a role in Monday's successful landing of NASA's InSight lander on Mars.
OSU atmospheric scientist Jeffrey Barnes and his colleague Dan Tyler have been working with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to provide information to the mission's engineers about what to expect from Mars' atmosphere during what project planners called the "seven minutes of terror."
Those are the seven minutes or so during which InSight slowed from a speed of about 13,000 mph as it entered the atmosphere of Mars and descended to land softly on the surface of the planet.
Barnes has been studying the atmosphere of Mars since his graduate school days at the University of Washington, where he worked with noted atmospheric scientist Conway Leovy. Barnes has been involved with Mars projects ever since, starting with the Viking mission in the 1970s that landed two spacecraft on the surface and placed two others into orbit around the planet. He also worked on the 1997 Mars Pathfinder mission, which operated the first rover on the planet's surface.
"It's been a long and interesting trip," Barnes said Monday afternoon in a telephone interview from his OSU office, "at times exciting and at times disappointing," as other missions have failed or fallen by the wayside.
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But Monday's landing on Mars went like clockwork. In a few weeks, InSight (it's an acronym that stands for Interior exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) will launch its real work of deploying a sophisticated seismic instrument designed to provide information about Mars' interior.
The atmospheric modeling that Barnes and Tyler provided suggests that the winds at the landing spot are relatively weak by Mars standards, an important factor in ensuring that the seismic instrument functions well: "It ends up being very sensitive to the winds," Barnes said. If the winds are too brisk — and, on Mars, winds of 50 to 60 mph aren't unusual — "the seismometer will be a wind instrument." The scientists also contributed information about what to expect as InSight slipped into the planet's upper atmosphere, where the winds can hit 400 mph.
Luck played a bit of a role in Monday's landing, Barnes said, in that "the big threat was a larger global dust storm" that this year started in June, earlier than usual. But the storm had started to die down a bit by the time InSight descended.
Both Barnes and Tyler will be working with a followup mission to Mars in 2020, in which NASA hopes to land a rover on the planet to search for the building blocks of life. In fact, the next few years will be busy times for exploring Mars, and Barnes understands why the red planet continues to fascinate humans.
"Mars is the most Earth-like planet in the Solar System by far," he said. "It's inevitable that human beings are going to want to go."