by Greg Kellner, Director, 6 Points Sci-Tech East
The words “Touchdown Confirmed!” caused an eruption of cheers, hugs and high fives today, and it wasn’t from the NFL, but rather the words of the announcer from the command center at the NASA/JPL Laboratories in Pasadena, California as the Insight probe landed on Mars. As I watched the landing unfold live on NASA TV, you could see the nervous excitement of each person in the command center over the course of the 7 minutes from the time the probe descended through the atmosphere to the time it landed on Martian soil. It was nothing less than mesmerizing! Here are some facts about Insight’s landing:
- Insight must enter the Martian atmosphere at an angle of 12 degrees. Any more than that and it will burn up upon descend just like a meteor here on earth. Any less than that, and the Insight will bounce off of the edge of the atmosphere and fly off into space never to return.
- After Insight enters the atmosphere, the heat shield on the capsule holding the probe must withstand 3000 degrees as it descends 1000 meters per second before it slows.
- A parachute will release, slowing the module, and then the capsule containing Insight will be blown off using explosives exposing the Insight and dropping it onto Mars in a controlled and continually slowing descent.
- If all is successful, upon landing, Insight will wait a few minutes, and unfurl its solar panels for power and send home some photos. Then the real work begins!
There are lots of other wonderful achievements of this mission, best explained by our friends at NASA, so I suggest you go check out the mission for more detailed specs and “Insights!”
Today’s accomplishment got me thinking about how space exploration and Judaism fit into one another. Some fun questions I always love to explore with campers are asking, in space or in this case on Mars, how often do you celebrate Shabbat? Judaism prescribes Shabbat as the day of rest, based on the idea that God created the world (universe included) in 6 days and rested on day 7. Is this in the context of an Earth day (24 hours) or might the Torah describe a different length of day that we don’t quite understand. Could a day be 1 million years in God-speak? If you don’t take the Torah quite so literally, you might simply think that in order to find balance in our lives, we need periodic rest from our work. So let’s say we send people to Mars, how often do you think they should rest? Given that a Martian day is only 37 minutes longer than an Earth day there isn’t too much to worry about, but there are other factors to think about that could affect the need for rest including prolonged exposure to radiation and heat in thin Martian atmosphere. Mars explorers will inevitably want to research far and wide, so how far can one venture from home base without risking not being able to return or exhaustion from the desire to explore and discover more. Do you think Shabbat is just as important on Mars as it is on Earth?
Last week, an important climate report was released from the EPA, which reminds me that each of us must be guardians of the Earth (the value of Shomrei Adamah), and we are taught in the Talmud to not be wasteful (Baal Tashchit) because God’s creations are so precious. Whether you believe in God or not, it’s still a good idea not to be wasteful because our resources are limited and precious. These two values bring some more questions into play: Does the value of protecting the Earth extend to that of Mars? If humans are living on Mars one day, do we have the same obligations to Mars as we do the Earth? Is the answer different if there are 5 people on Mars vs. 5 million one day? At what point does surviving off the land become wasteful? What kind of rules could be put in place before people live on Mars? Is it even worth worrying about because colonizing Mars may not be until many generations into the future? We might also think about why we are evening exploring Mars, because we have so much work to do to repair our own planet? We have to carefully consider whether our obligations to Mars and even the entire universe are the same as our obligations on Earth. That is an awful lot of responsibility for the people of our tiny planet.
As the lander descended on Mars I couldn’t help but be in awe of what humans have achieved. I know how difficult it can be at camp to steer a Vex robot 90 degrees to the left, and here a group of committed scientists and engineers programmed a robot to fly mostly autonomously 50+ million miles through space and land on another planet, where no one has ever set foot. 100 years ago people would have laughed and called it impossible. Today we talk about people traveling to Mars and commercial space travel. These are really and truly wonders of creation. When we experience a wonder of creation we can say the following blessing: Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech haolam, oseh maaseh vereshit, Blessed are You Adonai our God, who gives us the wonders of creation. For all of the scientists at NASA who may have worked on this project for 10 years, we can also recite the Shehecheyanu, for the tremendous and momentous achievement.
To explore Mars a bit more visit https://mars.nasa.gov/insight/.