“Everybody in the room was kind of on pins and needles,” said Don Banfield ’87, senior research associate, astronomy, describing a movie-like scene. Science team members who had worked on the InSight spacecraft for NASA sat and waited to hear whether the spacecraft had successfully landed last Monday.
“And we’re sitting there watching it, and it was maybe an hour before it was supposed to get to Mars,” Banfield continued. Sitting at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, “we’re all kind of mentally calculating: ‘If I was sitting on a spacecraft, how big would Mars look like in my eyes if I was just looking forward?’”
For Banfield and the team, the stakes were high: the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission was first proposed in 2009, and after a year and a half of proposal-writing, the project was selected from around 50 others. After further filtering and more years of work, the InSight project was finally selected to receive $425 million from NASA’s Discovery Program in 2012.
As a co-investigator of InSight’s science team, Banfield monitors weather data like Mars’ wind and temperature through the use of seismometers and other instruments attached to the spacecraft. Banfield also listens for “marsquakes,” as information on the quakes will help scientists learn more about the interior of the red planet, he explained.
For Banfield, this wasn’t his first time on the edge of his seat. While still “fresh faced” and working on the Mars Polar Lander team in 1999, the Cornell alumnus experienced the suspense of attempting to land a spacecraft; however, that lander crashed into the planet’s surface.
The memory of this experience – one that left many on the team distressed and in tears – stayed with him during last week’s watch. Banfield steeled himself for the worst: that the craft on which he had worked for the last eight or nine years wouldn’t land.
InSight, a 1,530-pound spacecraft armed with solar panels, cameras and seismometers, has been designed to spend one Martian year and 40 Martian days — equivalent to about two Earth years — on Mars, according to a NASA press release. It bears the purpose of studying the interior of the Red Planet, and will spend several months carefully inserting a probe five meters into the surface to collect data.
When Banfield first started at Cornell, he considered studying high-energy physics. However, his own interests, combined with working with expert faculty at the time like Carl Sagan, resulted in his eventual involvement with other notable spacecrafts such as the Voyager mission.
The day of InSight’s landing was lively, according to Banfield. There were Mars Bars, and someone had labeled water bottles with the words “Mars water” — an “inside joke” referencing the never-ending search for liquid water on Mars. News reporters and broadcast vans sat outside the mockup of the InSight spacecraft, and even Bill Nye ’77 was there.
As the announcer called out the altitude of the spacecraft, Banfield was picturing how far InSight was from touching down.
“You could kind of in your mind imagine, ‘okay now the spacecraft should be on the ground’ because it should be at zero by now,” he said of waiting during the descent. After a dramatic delay, the announcement of the landing sent the room erupting in celebration.
But it was only the first image, which was transmitted by InSight 10 minutes after the spacecraft landed, that jolted Banfield to the reality: “We’re on Mars. This is what it looks like.”
For him and his fellow scientists, the work has just begun. Banfield will spend the next few years plumbing the deep depths of the red planet, searching for information about how the solar system formed — billions of years before InSight touched down on the surface of Mars.