Categories: Astronomy

InSight Lander Touches Down! Begins Mission to Unlock the Secrets of Mars

On of May 5th, 2018, NASA’s Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) lander launched from Vandenburg Air Force Base atop an Atlas V rocket. Over the next seven months, the mission traveled some 458 million km (300 mi) to Mars for the sake of studying its deep interior and learn how this planet – and all the other terrestrial planets of the Solar System (like Earth) – formed.

At 11:47 am PST (2:47 pm EST), after a seven month journey, NASA’s InSight Lander entered the Martian atmosphere to begin the entry, descent and landing (EDL) phase of its mission. Over the course of the next five minutes, the mission controllers at NASA-JPL watched eagerly as the spacecraft went through the careful process of conducting a textbook landing.

This consisted of the lander deploying its parachute, separating from its heat shield, deploying its landing legs, turning on its landing radar, separating from its back shell and firing its retrorockets. At 11:52:59 am PST (2:52:59 EST), mission controllers received a signal via the Mars Cube One (MarCO) satellites that the lander had successfully touched down.

This illustration shows a simulated view of NASA’s InSight lander descending on its parachute toward the surface of Mars. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

These twin Cubesats, which are the first small satellites sent into deep space, launched on the same rocket as InSight, detaching shortly after launch and following their own trajectory to Mars. After carrying out communications and in-flight navigation experiments, the MarCOs began to relay transmissions to NASA-JPL during InSight’s EDL phase.

A few minutes after landing, the mission team was treated to an image of the ground beneath InSight, courtesy of the lander’s Instrument Context Camera (ICC). This camera is mounted just below the lander’s deck, providing it with a “fisheye” field of view of the area that is within reach of the lander’s 1.8 m (5.9 foot) robotic arm – aka. the Instrument Deployment Arm (IDA).

The black spots on the image were caused by dust grains sticking to the lens’ cover, which had not yet been removed. Despite this, this image provided the first glimpse at the spot where InSight will be conducting experiments for the next two years. In addition to being a textbook landing, the process was exciting since it’s been six years since NASA landed a mission on the Martian surface – the last being the Curiosity rover, which landed in 2012.

Shortly after the landing, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine had the following to say in a NASA press statement:

“Today, we successfully landed on Mars for the eighth time in human history. 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.”

The region where it touched down is known as Elysium Planitia, a still, flat region located south of the Elysium volcanic region. This region was selected because its topography makes it well-suited to the lander, which will need to remain stable while it carries out its science experiments, which include boring into the surface to deploy sensors (its Heat Flow Probe).

A minute after touchdown, InSight’s surface operations phase began. One of its first tasks was to deploy its two decagonal solar arrays, a process which began 16 minutes after landing and took another 16 minutes to complete. Once InSight begins drawing solar power, NASA-JPL will receive verification from the Odyssey spacecraft that is currently orbiting Mars (this is expected to happen by about 5:15 pm PST (8:15 pm EST).

This artist’s concept depicts the InSight lander on Mars after the lander’s robotic arm has deployed a seismometer and a heat probe directly onto the ground. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“We are solar powered, so getting the arrays out and operating is a big deal,” said Tom Hoffman at JPL. “With the arrays providing the energy we need to start the cool science operations, we are well on our way to thoroughly investigate what’s inside of Mars for the very first time.”

Within two days, the mission’s engineering team will being to deploy InSight’s robotic arm so it can take pictures of the landscape. By next week, InSight will begin collecting science data, though most of the mission teams’ efforts will be focused on preparing to place InSight’s instruments on the surface. As  InSight principal investigator Bruce Banerdt explained:

“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.”

The NASA InSight team reacts after receiving confirmation that the spacecraft successfully touched down on the surface of Mars, inside the Mission Support Area at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Credit: NASA/B. Ingalls

This is the eighth time that NASA has made a soft landing on Mars, and the first time that CubeSats have been deployed beyond Earth. This latter accomplishment is one of many firsts that is expected to come from the InSight lander, which will be the first mission to measure the “heartbeat” of Mars – i.e. study its interior structure and tectonic activity.

“Every Mars landing is daunting, but now with InSight safely on the surface we get to do a unique kind of science on Mars,” said JPL director Michael Watkins. “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.”

Update: NASA JPL announced that after conducting their flyby and relaying communications from the InSight lander, the MarCO cubesats captured this “farewell image” of Mars.

For regular updates on the mission, check out NASA’s InSight lander website. While there, you can also check out this 3D interactive look of the lander. If you missed the live broadcast of the landing, you can catch the recap on NASA TV. And be sure to enjoy this overview of the InSight mission, courtesy of NASA-JPL:

Further Reading: NASA

Matt Williams

Matt Williams is a space journalist and science communicator for Universe Today and Interesting Engineering. He's also a science fiction author, podcaster (Stories from Space), and Taekwon-Do instructor who lives on Vancouver Island with his wife and family.

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