Cheers and applause erupted at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory on Monday as a $993 million unmanned lander, called InSight, touched down on the Red Planet and managed to send back its first picture.
The high-drama landing of the waist-high spacecraft capped a nearly seven year journey, from spacecraft design, to launch to eventual touchdown, marking the eighth successful landing on Mars in NASA history.
“Touchdown confirmed,” a mission control operator at NASA said, as pent-up anxiety and excitement surged through the room, and dozens of scientists leapt from their seats to embrace each other.
The vehicle appeared to be in good shape, according to the first communications received from the Martian surface.
Next, InSight must open its solar arrays, as NASA waits until later in the afternoon to learn if that final, crucial phase also went as planned.
Mars InSight’s goal is to listen for quakes and tremors as a way to unveil the Red Planet’s inner mysteries, how it formed billions of years ago and, by extension, how other rocky planets like Earth took shape.
The spacecraft is NASA’s first to attempt to touch down on Earth’s neighboring planet since the Curiosity rover arrived in 2012.
More than half of 43 attempts to reach Mars with rovers, orbiters and probes by space agencies from around the world have failed.
NASA is the only space agency to have made it, and is invested in these robotic missions as a way to prepare for the first Mars-bound human explorers in the 2030s.
“We never take Mars for granted. Mars is hard,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for the science mission directorate, said on Sunday.
- ‘An absolutely terrifying thought’ –
The nail-biting entry, descent and landing phase began at 11:47 am (1940 GMT) at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, home to mission control for Mars InSight.
A carefully orchestrated sequence — already fully preprogrammed on board the spacecraft — unfolded over the following several minutes, coined “six and a half minutes of terror.”
Speeding faster than a bullet at 12,300 miles (19,800 kilometers) an hour, the heat-shielded spacecraft encountered scorching friction as it entered the Mars atmosphere.
The heat shield soared to a temperature of 2,700 Fahrenheit (about 1,500 Celsius) before it was discarded, the three landing legs deployed and the parachute popped out, easing InSight down to the Martian surface.
“It was intense and you could feel the emotion,” said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, in an interview on NASA television afterward.
- Goal: 3D map of inner Mars –
InSight contains key instruments that were contributed by several European space agencies.
France’s Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES) made the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) instrument, the key element for sensing quakes.
The German Aerospace Center (DLR) provided a self-hammering mole that can burrow 16 feet (five meters) into the surface — further than any instrument before — to measure heat flow.
Spain’s Centro de Astrobiologia made the spacecraft’s wind sensors.
Other significant contributions came from the Space Research Center of the Polish Academy of Sciences and Astronika, the Swiss Institute of Technology and Britain’s Imperial College London and Oxford University.
Together, these instruments will study geological processes, said Bruce Banerdt, InSight’s principal investigator at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
By listening for tremors on Mars, whether from quakes or meteor impacts or even volcanic activity, scientists can learn more about its interior and reveal how the planet formed.
The goal is to map the inside of Mars in three dimensions, “so we understand the inside of Mars as well as we have come to understand the outside of Mars,” Banerdt told reporters.