Published: Tue, November 27, 2018
Research | By Sheri Schwartz

Touchdown: NASA's InSight Lands on Mars

Touchdown: NASA's InSight Lands on Mars

Too shallow and InSight would have bounced off and tumbled into deep space.

InSight's perilous descent through the Martian atmosphere has stomachs churning and nerves stretched to the max. From here, scientists at NASA will begin preparing the lander for its primary mission: studying what's going on beneath the surface of Mars. The mission will help boffins understand the formation of rocky planets, and the Solar System as a whole, explained Bruce Banerdt, InSight's principal investigator. The landing itself is a tricky maneuver.

The journey to Mars has been described by NASA engineers as "seven minutes of terror", as more landers have failed than have succeeded.

The plan called for the spacecraft to go from 12,300 miles per hour (19,800 kph) to zero in six minutes flat as it pierced the Martian atmosphere and settled on the surface.

"While most of the country was enjoying Thanksgiving with their family and friends, the InSight team was busy making the final preparations for Monday's landing", said Tom Hoffman of JPL, InSight's project manager.

However, it is notoriously hard to touch down on Mars. The instrument will measure how much heat escapes from Mars' interior, which will reveal the amount of heat-producing radioactive elements it contains and how geologically active the planet is today.

Shortly after touchdown, the lander relayed an image of the Martian surface.

In 2003, the Beagle II craft disappeared during an attempt to land on the Red Planet and its wreckage was only discovered in 2015.

The image was marred by specks of debris. Mission control erupted into cheers as Insight hit the Elysium Planitia, and NASA cameras captured two scientists doing a truly wonderful celebration handshake that rivals anything in the National Basketball Association. This is when the intense heat could cause temporary drops in the radio signal from the craft. This tension quickly turned to excitement once InSight landed, however. It will slow down until it reaches a consistent 5 miles per hour. Then, it touched down at 2:54 p.m. ET. "With that, we're actually doing atmospheric science as we're passing by Mars, and we'll be digging through that data as well", Klesh said.

People react as they watch InSight land on Mars from Times Square in New York City.

Scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory have a testbed that looks like a pile of gravel in a lab, complete with boulders and a full engineering model of InSight that they can recreate the landing site with.

Why do we need to know this?

This will be the first probe to dedicate its investigations to understanding Mars' interior. In fact, it will be two to three months before InSight's robotic arm even sets its instruments on the martian surface, according to a NASA statement. Meanwhile, mission scientists will photograph what can be seen from the lander's perspective and monitor the environment.

However, it's not the first time we've attempted to get to Mars.

InSight was shooting for Elysium Planitia, a plain near the Martian equator that the InSight team hopes is as flat as a parking lot in Kansas. The panels must open to generate power; otherwise, the mission is a bust.

The first picture taken by InSight during landing.

A second instrument will burrow five metres into the ground of Mars, measuring the planet's temperature, while a third experiment will determine how Mars wobbles on its axis.

InSight's two-year mission will be to study the deep interior of Mars to learn how all celestial bodies with rocky surfaces, including Earth and the Moon, formed.

"Landing was thrilling, but I'm looking forward to the drilling", Banerdt said.

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