NASA’s InSight spacecraft lands safely on Mars

NASA’s InSight spacecraft lands safely on Mars

NASA’s latest mission to Mars landed successfully tonight to probe deep into the interior of the Red Planet.

InSight landing on Mars
How InSight looked as it came in to land on Mars, its legs outstretched and retro rockets firing. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Scientists at mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, clapped and cheered as the InSight lander “phoned home” with a signal that took eight minutes to reach Earth.

It arrived at 19.53 UT (11.53 am PST at Pasadena) after its nearly seven-month journey 458 million km (300 million miles) across space. This culminated in what NASA calls “seven minutes of terror” as InSight travelled through Mars’s atmosphere to reach the surface.

The lander’s first view of the martian surface was blurry because the lens cap was left on the camera on its robotic arm. That was intentional, to protect it against dust kicked up by the landing.

InSight  – short for short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport – hit the martian atmosphere in its protective aeroshell at a speed of 19,800 km per hour (12,300 mph).

A first clear image from the martian surface shows parts of InSight as well as the volcanic plain on which she sits. The Instrument Deployment Camera on the lander’s robotic arm still had its transparent lens cap in place. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

A heat shield helped prevent the robotic craft from burning up in the thin air. Then a supersonic parachute was deployed at a height of 11.2 km to slow the craft further. The heat shield was ejected at 9.5 km altitude before InSight’s legs were extended and onboard radar locked onto the ground 6.3 km up.

Related: A history of missions to Mars

At a height of around 600 meters (2,000 ft), the lander separated from its backshell and then at 50 meters (165 ft) it fired its 12 retro rockets to descend to the ground. It was the eighth successful landing for NASA since 1976 – the last was Curiosity in 2012. Around 60 per cent of international missions to Mars have failed.

InSight’s landing site was a vast smooth lava plain called Elysium Planitia, near the martian equator, and chosen for its smoothness. InSight will study what is inside Mars to help learn more about how the planets formed, 4 billion years ago.

How InSight will look on the surface of Mars once its experiments have all been set out. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

About five and a half hours after landing, InSight reported home that its solar panels were open and receiving sunlight to recharge its batteries. Each is 2.2 meters (7ft) wide. It also sent back two images of its landing site.

In the next few days, InSight will unstow its robotic arm and use the attached camera to take photos of the ground to help engineers decide where to place the spacecraft’s scientific instruments.

Full deployment will take two to three months, during which time, InSight will use its weather sensors and magnetometer to take readings from its landing site.

InSight’s seismometers are so sensitive that they can detect movement less than the width of an atom, and tiny meteor particles hitting the martian surface.

The first, blurry view of Mars captured by InSight’s lander-mounted, Instrument Context Camera (ICC). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Radio signals will investigate whether Mars still has a molten core, and a German-built “mole” will burrow five meters beneath the surface to take the planet’s temperature. The primary mission is scheduled to last two years.

InSight is based on the design of a previous NASA lander, Phoenix. It will be the first spacecraft to place a seismometer directly onto the surface of another planet, the first to dig deep into the martian surface, and the first to use a magnetometer.

InSight did not travel alone. Two mini demonstration spacecraft called Mars Cube One (MarsCO) flew behind it to relay telemetry data back to Earth as the mother ship entered the atmosphere and landed.

Related: Our guide to Mars

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