After a six-month (484,773,006km) voyage through space, NASA finally lands its InSight probe on the surface of the red planet.
A few minutes after landing, InSight sent the official “beep” to NASA to signal that it was alive and well.
To reach Mars, InSight cruised 301,223,981 miles at a top speed of 6,200 mph. Also, two cube satellites, MarCO-A and MarCO-B, have followed the spacecraft.
The probe even included a photo of the Martian surface where it landed.
This is the first successful Red Planet landing since the Curiosity rover’s arrival in August 2012.
InSight hit the thin Martian atmosphere at about 12,300 mph (19,800 km/h), nailing its entry angle of exactly 12 degrees. If the lander had come in any steeper than that, it would have burned up.
The lander’s heat shield endured temperatures around 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit (1,500 degrees Celsius) — hot enough to melt steel. Atmospheric drag slowed InSight down tremendously, to about 840 mph (1,350 km/h), at which point the lander deployed its supersonic parachute.
InSight soon fired up its small onboard thrusters to decelerate further. It finally touched down on a flat equatorial plain called Elysium Planitia at around 5 mph (8 km/h).
But despite the feeling of joy and relief that occurred among mission team members and NASA officials at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the tension still remains. Mission team members won’t know whether InSight successfully deployed its solar panels until 8:35 p.m. EST (0135 GMT on Nov. 27). Solar panels play a key role as the probe cannot survive without extending those solar arrays.
NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter won’t be in a position to relay the deployment confirmation to mission control until more than 5 hours after touchdown, agency officials said.
InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) is going to explore a part of Mars that we know the least about; its deep interior.
The InSight lander is interested in the Red Planet as a whole, including what’s happening deep beneath the surface.
This mission has brought three new instruments to the surface of Mars. One will measure how heat flows out of the planet. Another will use the planet’s poles to study its core, and one will hunt for “Marsquakes”. Scientists never did this kind of inspection of the red planet before.
The probe will dig deeper into Mars than ever before — nearly 16 feet or 5 meters — to take the planet’s temperature. It will also attempt to make the first measurements of marsquakes. To do that, InSight will use a seismometer placed directly on the Martian surface.
“This mission will probe the interior of another terrestrial planet, giving us an idea of the size of the core, the mantle, the crust and our ability then to compare that with the Earth,” said NASA’s chief scientist Jim Green. “This is of fundamental importance to understand the origin of our solar system and how it became the way it is today.”
InSight will spend two years investigating the interior.
MarCO-A and MarCO-B also played a key role in today’s excitement. They relayed data from InSight to mission control at JPL during the lander’s harrowing entry, descent and landing (EDL) sequence.
“We’ve studied Mars from orbit and from the surface since 1965, learning about its weather, atmosphere, geology and surface chemistry,” said Lori Glaze, acting director of the Planetary Science Division in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “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.”
Thumbnail image credit: NASA/JPL-CALTECH