The InSight lander, NASA’s latest foray to the red planet, has landed.
Cheers erupted at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., which operates the spacecraft, when InSight sent back acknowledgment of its safe arrival on Mars. That was the end of a journey of more than six months and 300 million miles.
Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator, was in the control room listening as each milestone of the landing process was called out, each followed by a round of clapping. “It was intense,” he said on NASA TV, “and you could feel the emotion.”
In the months ahead, InSight will begin its study of the Martian underworld, with the aim of helping scientists understand how the planet formed, lessons that could help also shed light on Earth’s origins. It will listen for tremors — marsquakes — and collect data that will be pieced together in a map of the interior of the red planet.
InSight landed at Elysium Planitia, near the Equator in the northern hemisphere. Mission scientists have described the region as resembling a parking lot or “Kansas without the corn.” Within minutes, the first photograph from InSight appeared on the screen, eliciting another round of cheers.
The image was partially obscured by dirt kicked up onto the clear lens cover, but it was evident that the landscape was indeed flat and boring.
That is intentional. Because the mission is not interested in rocky terrain or pretty sunsets, planners chose the flattest, safest place that the spacecraft could land.
The main scientific part of the mission will not begin for some time. During its first five to six weeks on the ground, InSight’s managers will largely be checking the health of the spacecraft, including its robotic arm.
After that, the arm will lift the spacecraft’s seismometer dome off the main deck of the lander and place it on the ground. A burrowing heat probe will be deployed after that and take about 40 days to reach its final depth of 16 feet.
InSight’s primary mission on the surface is to last nearly two years.When the research efforts get underway, it will attempt to answer a variety of questions: How often does the ground shake with marsquakes? Just how big is the molten core within Mars? How thick is the crust? How much heat is flowing up from the decay of radioactive elements at the planet’s core?
InSight is carrying two main instruments: a dome-shape package containing seismometers and a heat probe that is to burrow about 16 feet down. NASA has spent $814 million on InSight. In addition, France and Germany invested $180 million to build these main instruments.
The seismometers, which are designed to measure surface movements less than the width of a hydrogen atom, will produce what are essentially sonograms of the planet’s insides. In particular, scientists are looking to record at least 10 to 12 marsquakes over two years.
Temblors on Mars are not caused by plate tectonics, like on Earth. Instead they are generated when the planet’s crust cracks because of its interior’s cooling and shrinking. The seismometers could also detect other seismic vibrations from meteors hitting Mars.
InSight’s landing wasn’t NASA’s only success on Monday. The agency used the mission to test new technology.
Two identical spacecraft known as Mars Cube One, or MarCO for short, launched with InSight in May. MarCO A and B then separated from InSight’s cruise stage and have since been trailing behind it.
Hundreds of miniature satellites known as CubeSats have launched into orbit around Earth in recent years, but this is the first time that CubeSats have been sent on an interplanetary voyage.
The MarCO spacecraft relayed InSight’s telemetry to Earth, enabling the immediate celebration.
InSight joins a busy cast of robotic explorers on or at the red planet.
In orbit, NASA also has the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Odyssey and Maven. The European Space Agency has Mars Express and the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter. The Indian Space Research Organization has the Mars Orbiter Mission, also known as Mangalyaan.
On the surface, NASA currently has the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers, although solar-powered Opportunity has been quiet since the summer when a global dust storm prevented it from generating enough power to operate. NASA is hoping that Opportunity will revive now the skies have cleared.
And the year 2020 could get busier, when NASA is planning to launch another rover, similar to Curiosity but with a different set of instruments that will search for the building blocks of life.
A collaboration between the European Space Agency and Russia will launch the ExoMars, which will also carry instruments to try to answer whether life could have ever existed on Mars. China, Japan, the United Arab Emirates and India also intend to launch spacecraft to Mars in 2020.