After months in space, the NASA InSight probe has successfully touched down on Mars. The long-awaited landing came with the usual “seven minutes of terror” while signals from Mars crawled back to Earth at the speed of light. There was nothing to fear this time, though. NASA reports that InSight’s automated landing sequence performed perfectly and the probe is conducting systems checks in preparation for science operations.
Landing on Mars is no easy feat, not even for a small stationary robot like InSight. Mars has an atmosphere thick enough to incinerate or deflect an incoming spacecraft. InSight had to hit the atmosphere at an angle of 12 degrees exactly. Too shallow and InSight would have bounced off and tumbled into deep space. Too steep, and it would burn up before reaching the surface.
Three and a half minutes after entering the atmosphere, InSight deployed its parachute and ejected the heat shield. The atmosphere is thick enough to generate dangerous heat, but it’s not thick enough for parachutes to work all the way down. While InSight slowed itself with its parachute, it was too heavy to reach a safe landing speed. The answer, as with Curiosity, was a bank of small rockets. Forty-five seconds before touchdown, InSight jettisoned its chutes and activated the rockets for a nice, gentle landing. The team was extremely happy with the landing, as you can see in the tweet below.
Our @NASAInSight spacecraft stuck the #MarsLanding!
Its new home is Elysium Planitia, a still, flat region where it’s set to study seismic waves and heat deep below the surface of the Red Planet for a planned two-year mission. Learn more: https://t.co/fIPATUugFo pic.twitter.com/j0hXTjhV6I
— NASA (@NASA) November 26, 2018
InSight confirmed it was on the surface with a quick pulse shortly after 2 PM ET, making this the first NASA Mars landing in six years. InSight followed up its brief hello with an image of the landing site. The probe isn’t designed to take a lot of impressive photos, so you won’t learn anything new from the photo. However, it shows InSight is sitting level on a smooth area called Elysium Planitia. That’s important as NASA prepares to deploy InSight’s solar panels later today. As long as those work after the tumultuous landing, it should be smooth sailing for InSight.
???? Wish you were here! @NASAInSight sent home its first photo after #MarsLanding:
InSight’s view is a flat, smooth expanse called Elysium Planitia, but its workspace is below the surface, where it will study Mars’ deep interior. pic.twitter.com/3EU70jXQJw
— NASA (@NASA) November 26, 2018
During its two year mission on Mars, InSight will use instruments to study the planet’s interior. The probe is outfitted with a seismometer that will gather data on tremors beneath the Martian surface. Speaking of beneath the surface, InSight will also dig 5 meters down to measure the planet’s temperature. NASA will also monitor radio pulses from InSight as a way to track Mars’ rotation and wobble, which could help us understand its internal structure.
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