NASA's InSight probe lands successfully on Mars

It is the first mission ever to focus exclusively on what is under the Red Planet's surface

Photo: NASA InSight's first picture, captured by its Instrument Context Camera.

After traveling hundreds of millions of kilometers through space over the course of six months, and with the help of aerobraking, a parachute system and rocket engines, NASA's InSight landed safely Monday on the Martian surface, surviving the crucial “seven minutes of terror” to enter Mars' atmosphere, decelerate from an initial speed of 19,300 kmh down to just 8 kmh, and touch down. The breathtaking minutes-long landing was so intense that it was watched all around the world and even broadcast live on the Nasdaq Stock Market tower in New York City's Times Square.

"During that short span of time, InSight had to autonomously perform dozens of operations and do them flawlessly - and by all indications that is exactly what our spacecraft did." InSight project manager Tom Hoffman, commented proudly at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

This was also proven by the fact that merely few minutes after the touchdown was officially confirmed, controllers received the very first photograph of the probe's new surroundings on Martian soil, which meant that the spacecraft managed to successfully deploy its two decagonal solar arrays, needed to provide power.

“It was intense and you could feel the emotion” in the control room, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said after the success.

InSight’s landing spot, Elysium Planitia, is one of the most boring places on the alien world - a vast, smooth lava plain that the US space agency calls “the biggest parking lot on Mars”. But a featureless, and hopefully quiet, landscape is precisely what InSight needs for its unique mission to answer scientists' questions about the composition and evolution of the planet and whether Mars was formed from the same mixture of materials as Earth. So now InSight will be listening closely for Marsquakes, measuring the rate at which heat flows out of the planet and determining how much Mars’ polar axis wobbles as it orbits the sun, so it could deliver answers to all these questions we need. 

"We've studied Mars from orbit and from the surface since 1965, learning about its weather, atmosphere, geology and surface chemistry," Lori Glaze, acting director of the Planetary Science Division in NASA's Science Mission Directorate, commented. "Now we finally will explore inside Mars and deepen our understanding of our terrestrial neighbor as NASA prepares to send human explorers deeper into the solar system."

To achieve all that the spacecraft is equipped with a seismometer that relies on half a dozen different sensors to measure planetary perturbations in a range of frequencies; a movement and wobble sensor that detects anomalies in Mars’s rotation; and, most significantly, a deep thermal probe, which a robotic arm will hammer up to 16 ft. into the surface of the planet, far deeper than any spacecraft has dug before. 

“Measuring Marsquakes will give information on Mars’ internal structure and hopefully reveal more about how the planet formed. Why is Mars smaller and with a lower density than Earth and Venus? It suggests that Mars’ formation and evolution was somehow different to Earth’s or some process in the early solar system prevented Mars from growing bigger,” said Neil Bowles, a planetary scientist at Oxford University, who worked on the spacecraft, adding that InSight is expected to record anything from a dozen to 100 Marsquakes of magnitude 3.5 or greater over the lander’s two-year mission.

Furthermore, InSight may find the answer to why at some point in its history, Mars lost its magnetic field and much of its atmosphere, causing temperatures to drop and exposing the surface to intense radiation.

The $850m InSight (an acronym for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) mission is planned to last 24 months or about one Martian year. Then in 2020, the European Space Agency will launch the ExoMars Rover, and NASA will send the Mars 2020 Rover. Both missions will focus on astrobiology, looking for signs of life; the Mars 2020 Rover, for instance, is currently set to explore the Jezero Crater, which once was a 30-mile wide lake.

What’s more, InSight isn’t traveling alone.Trailing behind on its eight-month journey to Mars have been two briefcase-sized CubeSats, deployed by the same rocket that launched InSight itself. Mostly proof-of-concept technology, they are intended to test the practicality of such mini-ships on deep space missions. While they are not essential to the overall mission, if they function as they should, they will help radio back data from InSight as it descends and lands before they sail past Mars and off into space.

Similar articles