Mars Insight Lands, Sends Back First Image

Mars Insight Lands, Sends Back First Image

NASA’s InSight probe successfully landed on Mars as planned today after a nearly 7-month journey.  Two tiny cubesats called MarCO-A and MARCO-B worked perfectly to relay signals, including InSight’s first post-landing photo, back to Earth.  It will be a few hours before NASA has confirmation that the solar panels, which provide electricity for the spacecraft’s systems, deployed correctly, but so far the mission is proceeding flawlessly.

The Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) spacecraft is a stationary lander, not a rover like Curiosity.  It will remain where it is on Elysium Planitia (Heavenly Plain) and deploy instruments to study the interior of the Red Planet, the first spacecraft to do so.

InSight carries a seismometer, SEIS (Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure), and a Heat Flow and Physics Properties Probe (HP3). SEIS was provided by the French space agency, CNES, with the participation of other European institutes and JPL. HP3 was provided by the German space agency, DLR.  JPL supplied a Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment (RISE) that will use the spacecraft communication system to provide precise measurements of the planet’s rotation.  The spacecraft was built by Lockheed Martin.

InSight also has a camera and sent back the first photo of its landing site moments after arriving at its new home.  The dots on the image are particles of dust on its dust cover.  The cover will be removed after the dust kicked up by the landing settles.

First post-landing image from NASA’s Mars InSight probe, November 26, 2018. Credit: NASA

Reception of the image, and moment-by-moment data from the 6.5 minute entry, descent, and landing (EDL) sequence, in real time was made possible by two tiny cubesats that were launched with InSight.   MarCO-A and MarCO-B separated from InSight after launch and trailed the spacecraft throughout the journey to Mars.  Their purpose was to relay signals from InSight to Earth during EDL as they flew past Mars.

This was the first time cubesats have been sent into deep space and were categorized as a technology demonstration so whether they would work or not was an open question.  They worked just fine, receiving UHF signals from InSight and transmitting them back to Earth in X-band. The cubesats were not designed to either land on or go into orbit around Mars.  They flew past the planet and out of range of InSight minutes after the landing.

Future communications with Insight will be through two NASA spacecraft that already are in orbit around Mars — Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and Mars Odyssey.  MRO also collected data during EDL, but it will not be transmitted back to Earth for several hours when it is in the correct orbital position to do so.

This is NASA’s eighth successful landing on Mars.  The others were Viking 1 and Viking 2 in 1976 (both also had orbiters), Mars Pathfinder (1997), Spirit and Opportunity (2004), Phoenix (2008), and Curiosity (2012).

Landing sites of all successful NASA Mars landers. Credit: NASA

The United States is the only country to successfully land spacecraft on Mars.  Four attempts by the Soviet Union in the 1970s were mission failures (data was returned from one after landing, but for only 20 seconds, not enough to return even one image). Two European attempts in 2003 and 2016 also failed.  NASA’s own Mars Polar Lander failed in 1999.

NASA officials always stress how difficult it is to land on Mars.  During a press conference yesterday, Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, said it again: “Never take Mars for granted.  Mars is hard.”

But today, at least, everything went smoothly.   Bruce Banerdt, InSight’s Principal Investigator, calls Insight a “slow motion” mission because it will take 2-3 months to deploy the instruments, another month to calibrate them and 6 months before scientists have a “glimmer” of what they hope to learn.  The prime mission will last two Earth years and he hopes that “basic” questions about the interior of Mars will be answered by then.

The result will be a three-dimensional map of the planet’s interior and a look back through 4.5 billion years to the formation of the solar system, which will lead to a better understanding of Earth’s own evolution.

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