This week we’re looking up from our terrestrial concerns with the Atlantic space writer Marina Koren. NASA’s InSight lander is about to complete its six-month journey to Mars. Marina will tell us what it’s looking for, and why NASA engineers will be biting their nails on its way to the planet’s surface. — Matt Peterson
What to Know: NASA’s New Mars Mission
By Marina Koren
What we’re watching: While Americans across the country recover from their Thanksgiving meals, engineers and scientists at NASA will be glued to their computer screens, eagerly awaiting another historic moment in space exploration. On November 26, the space agency will try to land a spacecraft on Mars for the tenth time. The InSight lander left Earth in May and has spent the past six months cruising through the solar system at a breezy 6,200 miles an hour. Unlike NASA’s most well-known Mars missions, InSight is not built to roam the Martian surface or examine interesting rocks with a little robotic arm. Instead, InSight will remain where it touches down. It will unfurl its instruments, burrow them into the rust-colored soil, and quietly collect data on the depths below.
What you should know: NASA has previously sent several successful rover missions to Mars, including Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity. (You might remember Curiosity as the rover that celebrated its first year on Mars in 2013 by vibrating its hardware to the tune of “Happy Birthday.”) These missions have provided an enormous amount of information about the planet’s soil, and have even discovered hints of water in the rock. But the rovers weren’t designed to study Mars’s interior, and scientists don’t know what’s going on even a mile below the surface. InSight’s instruments are designed to, among other things, reveal the size and composition of the Martian core—is it liquid or solid?—measure the structure of the crust, and detect any seismic activity, a.k.a “Marsquakes.” All of this information will help scientists better understand how rocky planets such as Mars—and our own—formed 4.5 billion years ago.
Science aside, the mission will be an incredible show of engineering. NASA has successfully landed on Mars in eight out of nine attempts, but it’s still hard. Only the United States has managed to pull it off. In 2016, the Schiaparelli lander, a collaboration between Russia and about two dozen European nations, attempted to parachute gently to Mars’s surface, but ended up crashing and carving out its own little impact crater in the rock.
The big question: Is this thing going to blow up on descent? I’m only half kidding. InSight’s attempt to stick the landing is going to be a real nail-biter. The descent from the top of Mars’s atmosphere down to the ground takes seven minutes. In that very short time, the InSight lander must deploy its parachute and landing legs, spot the surface with radar instruments, and fire 12 engines to help it slow down so it doesn’t smash into pieces. This is a preprogrammed sequence, and NASA engineers can’t do anything if something goes wrong. They also can’t track the descent in real time. It takes about eight minutes for signals to travel between Mars and Earth. By the time NASA learns that InSight has reached the top of the atmosphere, the lander would have already touched down—or crashed.
I also wonder if any internal discussion has taken place about how the excitement of the InSight landing may draw some attention away from an aging NASA rover. Here’s the backstory: In June, a massive dust storm covered virtually every part of Mars and blocked sunlight from reaching the ground. The Opportunity rover, which had been roaming the surface since 2004, couldn’t charge its solar-powered batteries and slipped into sleep mode. The skies cleared in September, but Opportunity didn’t wake up. When NASA leadership tried to set a deadline for recovery attempts, some scientists and engineers mutinied. The scenario presented a rare case of division among those in space missions, who, at least from the outside, usually seem like a big, happy family. NASA ended up publicly reassuring team members and Opportunity fans alike that it wouldn’t give up on Opportunity easily, and has promised to listen for pings from the rover until at least January.
What’s next: More spacecraft are on their way in the coming years. NASA and the European Space Agency each plan to launch a rover in the summer of 2020. The two agencies recently agreed to work together on a future mission that will really elevate the game in Mars exploration: bringing Mars samples home. The plan is for NASA’s 2020 rover to collect a bunch of rocks, pack them into about 30 pen-size canisters, and then wait for another mission to arrive. That mission will deliver another rover and a small rocket nearby. That rover will drive over, collect the samples, and return them to the rocket, which will then vault them into space, where yet another mission will be waiting. A spacecraft in orbit around Mars will join up with the rocket, retrieve the samples, and then maneuver its way back to Earth. I’m out of breath just describing this, so I can’t imagine how NASA is going to pull it off, or where it’ll get the money. But those are problems for another day.
What to Expect
Notes on the news to come
After 12 years, Renae Lawrence, a 41-year-old Australian woman, will be released from an Indonesian prison and deported back to Australia on Wednesday. Lawrence is a member of the so-called Bali Nine group, which gained notoriety in 2005 after its arrest for trying to smuggle $4 million worth of heroin out of Indonesia. Lawrence is the first of the group with the prospect of freedom. Of the other eight, five are serving life sentences, one reportedly died of cancer in prison, and two were executed by firing squad in 2015. However, another arrest could await her back home. With outstanding warrants in Australia from a high-speed police chase in 2005, Lawrence, who has insisted that she participated in the drug run only under duress, may still have more time to serve.
Arts and Culture
On Wednesday, for the 45th year in a row, Americans will gather around their TV screens to watch A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. Along with A Charlie Brown Christmas and It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, which usually airs a few days before Halloween, the 25-minute program follows the adventures of Charles Schulz’s gaggle of characters: Snoopy, Linus, Lucy, Woodstock, and the eponymous Charlie. The animation, largely unchanged since the mid-1970s, lacks the special effects and HD-quality of today’s children’s programming. Still, for the past few years, approximately 7.5 million viewers have tuned in to the Thanksgiving special. When asked why the programs have continued to be so popular, the producer Lee Mendelson said Charlie Brown, as Schulz imagined him, “was the kind of nice kid that people would like to have as their next-door neighbor.” All these years later, millions of people are still happy to have him around.
Politics and Policy
According to the Human Rights Campaign, last year at least 29 transgender people in the United States died from acts of violence—the highest such number the group has recorded. On Tuesday, the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance, advocates will memorialize these victims and other sufferers of violence against people whose gender identity differs from the one they were assigned at birth. The tradition started as a small vigil in 1999 to commemorate Rita Hester, who was killed in Allston, Massachusetts. Since then, the event, which always involves a vigil, has gone international. It’s not a celebration, Gwendolyn Ann Smith, the day’s founder, wrote in 2016, but a moment for mourning. “Every other day, we shall continue to fight for the living,” Smith said.
25 Years Ago
“To argue that affirmative action, which gives preferential treatment to disadvantaged minorities as part of a plan to achieve social equality, is no different from the policies that created the disadvantages in the first place is a travesty of reasoning. Reverse Racism is a cogent description of affirmative action only if one considers the cancer of racism to be morally and medically indistinguishable from the therapy we apply to it. A cancer is an invasion of the body's equilibrium, and so is chemotherapy; but we do not decline to fight the disease because the medicine we employ is also disruptive of normal functioning. Strong illness, strong remedy: the formula is as appropriate to the health of the body politic as it is to that of the body proper.” — Stanley Fish, November 1993
Items this week by Rachael Allen, Andrew Henry, Caroline Kitchener, Matt Peterson, and Karen Yuan. What do you think of these mini-previews? We want to know. Tell us in 10 seconds.
Updates on your Masthead membership
One thing you should know: America’s public-transit systems are in crisis. Earlier this week, Matt Peterson interviewed the transportation reporter Aaron Gordon to find out why, and what can be done to the fix the problems. The best solutions, Gordon says, aren’t going to come by way of private companies or new apps. [Listen to Matt’s conversation with Gordon here, or join the conversation on our forums.]
Where you can dive in: “We're at this moment where what is considered taboo is very rapidly changing,” Kate Julian said in a Masthead interview about her new cover story, “The Sex Recession.” The norms around dating have changed, Kate says—just one of the factors contributing to young people having less sex. [Read excerpts from our interview with Kate, or listen to the whole thing.]
What’s coming: Next week is Thanksgiving, so you won’t hear as much from us. But keep an eye out for a special issue on how members are bridging ideological divides—it’ll get you ready for those difficult conversations with family members at the Thanksgiving table.
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