After a 205-day journey through space that covered 300 million miles, NASA’s three-legged InSight probe descended safely after a final, intricate seven-minute maneuver on the red planet Mars to whoops of joy at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and enthusiasts around the world following live, edge-of-the-seat action on social media platforms. NASA spacecraft ‘InSight’ is designed to burrow beneath the surface of Mars and crack open crucial secrets held deep inside the planet’s rose-hued atmosphere. With Monday’s achievement, Mars has just received its newest robotic resident. It’s been a long wait for NASA’s scientists tracking InSight’s every move since it launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on 5 May. The lander touched down near Mars’ equator on the western side of a flat, smooth expanse of lava called Elysium Planitia – a plain almost as flat as a parking lot – just moments before 3 pm EST.
The InSight team has chosen a “boring” spot for the landing because they want the probe’s two primary instruments, a sensitive seismometer, and an underground temperature probe to be undisturbed – to measure the tiniest fluctuations in the planet’s interior. The mission is expected to last about two Earth years. The stationary 360-kilogram lander will use its 6 feet robotic arm to place a mechanical mole and seismometer on the ground. The self-hammering mole will burrow 16 feet down to measure the planet’s internal heat, while the seismometer listens for possible quakes. No lander has dug deeper on Mars than several inches, and no seismometer has ever worked on the planet.
“Today, we successfully landed on Mars for the eighth time in human history,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “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. The best of NASA is yet to come, and it is coming soon.”
Now InSight’s camera has sent back some clearer pictures of the Red Planet, showing a much lighter Mars than you would have imagined. The photo also shows a dusty, rocky surface without any major craters in sight. The new robotic resident sent signals to earth about 12.30pm AEST indicating its solar panels were open and it was collecting sunlight on the Martian surface. The image was relayed from InSight to Earth via NASA’s Odyssey spacecraft, currently orbiting Mars.
NASA last landed on Mars in 2012 with the Curiosity rover. “Landing on Mars is one of the hardest single jobs that people have to do in planetary exploration,” InSight’s lead scientist, Bruce Banerdt, said before Monday’s success. “It’s such a difficult thing, it’s such a dangerous thing that there’s always a fairly uncomfortably large chance that something could go wrong.”
Mars has been the graveyard for a multitude of space missions. Up to now, the success rate at the red planet was only 40 percent, counting every attempted flyby, orbital flight and landing by the U.S., Russia and other countries since 1960.
The U.S., however, has pulled off seven successful Mars landings in the past four decades, not counting InSight, with only one failed touchdown. No other country has managed to set and operate a spacecraft on the dusty surface.