Insight(ful) Views

Space geeks everywhere are readying their laptops for tomorrow’s big event. For those who don’t spend endless hours monitoring the NASA homepage, tomorrow is still an event worth noting – the Insight spacecraft is set to land on the surface of Mars.

Insight is a bit of a throwback to those first Mars missions. No fancy bouncing bubbles of protection or rambling rovers that crawl slowly across the surface. No, Insight will plunge through the Martian atmosphere with only a basic heat shield to protect it. Assuming the heat shield does it duty, Insight will then deploy its parachute and an old-fashioned tripod of legs, fire a few small rockets for stability, and gently (we hope) settle on the surface. Once down, that’s it. The landing site will be Insight’s new permanent home.

But don’t imagine that makes for a boring mission. Insight will be settling in near the equator, on a relatively flat piece of land known as Elysium Planitia. The spot has two advantages – the equatorial location promises lots of sunshine to help keep the batteries charged and the flat plain is the perfect location for Insight to conduct its experiments.

And what, you may be wondering, is Insight up to? The onboard scientific instruments will be conducting a standard check-up – measuring Mars’ pulse, temperature and reflexes. The pulse refers to Mars’ seismology – are there Marsquakes? How often and how big? Temperature refers not to surface temp (we already have a ton of information on that) but to Mars’ internal temperature. And reflexes refers to the wobble in Mars’ orbit caused by the interaction of its poles with the Sun.

All of this information gives a better idea of whether Mars is still a “live” planet. “Live” planets, like Earth, have hot cores and layers that move across each other. And while surface inhabitants may not always be aware of all this activity, when it does make itself felt, it can do so in spectacular fashion. Think earthquakes and volcanos. Humans tend to view these type of events as something horrible and terrifying, and the results can be disastrous, especially in the short term. But all these signs also indicate a planet that can still generate a gravitational field. And a gravitational field means you can have an atmosphere, water on the surface, and all the other elements needed to sustain life.

For any future Martian colonists, this can be critical information for the long-term success of life on Mars. We know Mars has gravity (slightly less than ours) but we don’t know anything else about the heart of the planet. This mission will be our first real opportunity to get a real sense of where Mars is on the scale of planetary evolution.

This assumes that Insight makes it safely to the surface, equipment intact and fully functional. The rate of successful landings on Mars stands at about 40%, so this is no sure thing. The mission is a joint operation between NASA and the European Space Agency, and NASA does have the best success rate for Martian landings, not to mention a real affinity for three-legged explorers.

If you do tune in, make sure you have peanuts on hand (an old NASA tradition dating back to 1964) and a drink to help ease the tension. A good brown ale goes well with peanuts (and, according to one study, is a perfect pairing because the fat in the nuts helps absorb the alcohol). Wine may not be an obvious match, but if you prefer grapes to hops, then consider how your peanuts have been prepared. If you’re munching on a salty, dry roasted bowlful or even with a little spice, try balancing that with a little sweetness. Rieslings can be a great match here or if you’re really feeling daring, a good sweet sherry. If you prefer your nuts with, say, a little caramel coating, you don’t need to go super dry. Instead, look for something with complexity that can stand up to both the sweet and the savory. A good red blend will really pair well not only with your sweet nuts but also with your need to relieve tension during those six minutes when Insight is incommunicado.

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