When your entire landing sequence is shorter than the time the radio signal travels from Mars to the Earth, InSight’s handlers suffered through “seven minutes of terror” until they could celebrate the success of landing on Mars.
A single ping was all it took to send mission control into a engineering party celebration that welcomed the newest explorer to the surface of Mars.
“Today, we successfully landed on Mars for the eighth time in human history,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “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 lander touched down Monday, Nov. 26, near Mars’ equator on the western side of a flat, smooth expanse of lava called Elysium Planitia, with a signal affirming a completed landing sequence at approximately noon PST (3 p.m. EST).
InSight’s two-year mission will be to study the deep interior of Mars to learn how all celestial bodies with rocky surfaces, including Earth and the Moon, formed. The $850 million InSight Mars lander mission — whose name is short for “Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport” — launched on May 5 atop an Atlas V rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, which was a first. All previous NASA interplanetary missions started from Florida’s Space Coast.
“We hit the Martian atmosphere at 12,300 mph (19,800 kilometers per hour), and the whole sequence to touching down on the surface took only six-and-a-half minutes,” said InSight project manager Tom Hoffman at JPL. “During that short span of time, InSight had to autonomously perform dozens of operations and do them flawlessly — and by all indications that is exactly what our spacecraft did.”
Confirmation of a successful touchdown is not the end of the challenges of landing on the Red Planet. InSight’s surface-operations phase began a minute after touchdown. One of its first tasks is to deploy its two decagonal solar arrays, which will provide power. That process begins 16 minutes after landing and takes another 16 minutes to complete.
Late Monday night, InSight sent signals to Earth indicating that its solar panels are open and collecting sunlight on the Martian surface. NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter relayed the signals, which were received on Earth. Solar array deployment ensures the spacecraft can recharge its batteries each day.
Odyssey also relayed a pair of images showing InSight’s landing site.
In the coming days, the mission team will unstow InSight’s robotic arm and use the attached camera to snap photos of the ground so that engineers can decide where to place the spacecraft’s scientific instruments. It will take two to three months before those instruments are fully deployed and sending back data.
In the meantime, InSight will use its weather sensors and magnetometer to take readings from its landing site at Elysium Planitia — its new home on Mars.