All eyes were on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) mission support center at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, on Monday when the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy, and Heat Transport (InSight) spacecraft successfully touched down on the planet Mars, 300 million miles from Earth.
InSight team members jumped for joy after waiting to see if the spacecraft would crash or make a successful landing.
“We hit the Martian atmosphere at 12,300 mph (19,800 kilometers per hour), and the whole sequence to touching down on the surface took only six-and-a-half minutes,” InSight project manager Tom Hoffman at JPL said. “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’s view is a flat, smooth expanse called Elysium Planitia, but its workspace is below the surface, where it will study Mars’ deep interior. pic.twitter.com/3EU70jXQJw
— NASA (@NASA) November 26, 2018
NASA said the landing is the first step of a two-year mission “to study the deep interior of Mars to learn how all celestial bodies with rocky surfaces, including Earth and the Moon, formed.”
NASA launched InSight from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on May 5, and the spacecraft touched down on the red planet on Monday near Mars’ equator on the western side on a flat, smooth expanse of lava called Elysium Planitia.
“Today, we successfully landed on Mars for the eighth time in human history,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said. “InSight will study the interior of Mars, and will teach us valuable science as we prepare to send astronauts to the Moon and later to Mars.”
“This accomplishment represents the ingenuity of America and our international partners, and it serves as a testament to the dedication and perseverance of our team,” Bridenstine said. “The best of NASA is yet to come, and it is coming soon.”
President Donald Trump brought up the Mars landing at a rally in Tupelo, Mississippi on Monday.
“Today, we just landed on Mars — did you hear that?” Trump said to the cheering crowd. “They were celebrating at NASA. We have reawakened NASA, and that’s a good thing.”
NASA’s website states:
The landing signal was relayed to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, via NASA’s two small experimental Mars Cube One (MarCO) CubeSats, which launched on the same rocket as InSight and followed the lander to Mars. They are the first CubeSats sent into deep space. After successfully carrying out a number of communications and in-flight navigation experiments, the twin MarCOs were set in position to receive transmissions during InSight’s entry, descent, and landing.
Confirmation of a successful touchdown is not the end of the challenges of landing on the Red Planet. InSight’s surface-operations phase began a minute after touchdown. One of its first tasks is to deploy its two decagonal solar arrays, which will provide power. That process begins 16 minutes after landing and takes another 16 minutes to complete.
InSight will begin to collect science data within the first week after landing, though the teams will focus mainly on preparing to set InSight’s instruments on the Martian ground. At least two days after touchdown, the engineering team will begin to deploy InSight’s 5.9-foot-long (1.8-meter-long) robotic arm so that it can take images of the landscape.
NASA confirmed late Monday that the solar operation was in place.
For some involved in the project, the fun is just beginning. InSight principal investigator Bruce Banerdt of JPL said:
Landing was thrilling, but I’m looking forward to the drilling. When the first images come down, our engineering and science teams will hit the ground running, beginning to plan where to deploy our science instruments. Within two or three months, the arm will deploy the mission’s main science instruments, the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) and Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) instruments.
InSight will explore the planet for one Martian year, plus 40 Martian days, or “sols,” or until Nov. 24, 2020, according to NASA.
“Every Mars landing is daunting, but now with InSight safely on the surface we get to do a unique kind of science on Mars,” JPL director Michael Watkins said after the landing. “The experimental MarCO CubeSats have also opened a new door to smaller planetary spacecraft. The success of these two unique missions is a tribute to the hundreds of talented engineers and scientists who put their genius and labor into making this a great day.”
The NASA website explains how the InSight project is operated, including partnerships with European space agencies.
A number of European partners, including France’s Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES) and the German Aerospace Center (DLR), are supporting the InSight mission. CNES, and the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris (IPGP), provided the SEIS instrument, with significant contributions from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Germany, the Swiss Institute of Technology (ETH) in Switzerland, Imperial College and Oxford University in the United Kingdom, and JPL. DLR provided the HP3 instrument, with significant contributions from the Space Research Center (CBK) of the Polish Academy of Sciences and Astronika in Poland. Spain’s Centro de Astrobiología (CAB) supplied the wind sensors.
Over the next few “sols” – or Martian days of 24 hours, 39½ minutes – flight controllers will assess the health of InSight’s all-important robot arm and its science instruments. It will take months to set up and fine-tune the instruments, and lead scientist Bruce Banerdt said he doesn’t expect to start getting a stream of solid data until late next spring.
The 800-pound (360-kilogram) InSight is stationary and will operate from the same spot for the next two years, the duration of a Martian year.
NASA’s next mission, the Mars 2020 rover, will prowl for rocks that might contain evidence of ancient life. The question of whether life ever existed in Mars’ wet, watery past is what keeps driving NASA back to the fourth rock from the sun.
You can find more information on NASA’s Mars mission here.
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