NASA’s InSight Spacecraft Lands Safely on Mars

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The InSight lander, operated by NASA and built by scientists in the United States, France and Germany, touched down in the vast, red expanse of Mars’ Elysium Planitia just before 3pm Eastern Monday.

For the eighth time ever, humanity has achieved one of the toughest tasks in the solar system: landing a spacecraft on Mars. InSight marks NASA’s first Mars landing since the Curiosity rover in 2012 and the first dedicated to studying the deep interior of Mars.

The nail-biting entry, descent and landing phase began at 11:47 am (1940 GMT) at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, home to mission control for Mars InSight. The lander plunged through the thin Martian atmosphere at about 2:47 p.m. EST (1947 GMT), heatshield first, and used a supersonic parachute to slow down. Then, it fired its retro rockets to slowly descend to the surface of Mars. Mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, erupted in laughter, applause, hugs and tears as soon as the lander touched down.

InSight is being followed to Mars by two mini-spacecraft comprising NASA’s Mars Cube One (MarCO), the first deep-space mission for CubeSats, which attempt to relay data from InSight as it enters the planet’s atmosphere and lands. Speeding faster than a bullet at 12,300 miles (19,800 kilometers) an hour, the heat-shielded spacecraft encountered scorching friction as it entered the Mars atmosphere.

InSight will detect geophysical signals deep below the Martian surface, including marsquakes and heat. Scientists will also be able to track radio signals from the stationary spacecraft, which vary based on the wobble in Mars’ rotation. To look deep into Mars, the lander must be at a place where it can stay still and quiet for its entire mission. That’s why scientists chose Elysium Planitia as InSight’s home, according to NASA. By listening for tremors on Mars, whether from quakes or meteor impacts or even volcanic activity, scientists can learn more about its interior and reveal how the planet formed.

“We’ve studied Mars from orbit and from the surface since 1965, learning about its weather, atmosphere, geology and surface chemistry,” Lori Glaze, acting director of the Planetary Science Division in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, was quoted as saying. “Now we finally will explore inside Mars and deepen our understanding of our terrestrial neighbour as NASA prepares to send human explorers deeper into the solar system.”