If you’ve been paying any attention to NASA lately, then you’ve undoubtedly heard about the space agency’s InSight mission for Mars. NASA launched InSight from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base in May, and after a six-month journey through space, the lander officially touched down on the Martian surface Monday afternoon.
Citing an official statement released by NASA, InSight landed on Mars at approximately 3 P.M. Eastern time. Just before contacting the ground, InSight initiated its camera system to capture a hazy photograph of its landing site: a flat and smooth region near the equator known to planetary scientists as Elysium Planitia.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-CalTech
NASA engineers were alerted to the successful landing after one of the space agency’s two Mars Cube One (MarCO) CubeSats relayed the signal to Earth. Both CubeSats followed InSight to Mars, and as NASA points out, they’re the first two CubeSats to be sent into deep space.
"Today, we successfully landed on Mars for the eighth time in human history," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine expressed with excitement Monday afternoon.
"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."
Once InSight approached Mars’ atmosphere, it went in for an autonomous nose-dive. The lander’s heat shield took most of the abuse during atmospheric insertion, but soon after, the lander deployed a parachute to slow its descent. When InSight approached the ground, it broke away from its parachute and thrusters took over to stabilize the landing procedure.
As promised, NASA live-streamed the InSight landing event on its website and YouTube. The video included commentary from NASA officials, in addition to detailed synopses involving the landing procedure and potential concerns of what could go wrong. We’ve embedded the frame of that video below for your viewing pleasure:
Worthy of note, InSight isn’t out of the woods just yet. Despite the near-perfect landing procedure, NASA can’t use the lander for scientific operations unless its solar arrays deploy correctly. The space agency expects to receive confirmation of successful solar array deployment sometime Monday evening.
"We are solar powered, so getting the arrays out and operating is a big deal," said Tom Hoffman, InSight’s project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "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."
Assuming everything goes according to plan, InSight will study many of Mars’ internal mechanisms. Among the plethora of qualities InSight will investigate are the planet’s internal temperature, the nature of Marsquakes, and the planet’s orbital wobble. These details should help planetary scientists in their quest to compare Mars with Earth and better understand its formation.
It should be interesting to see what InSight teaches us about the red planet, but only time will tell.