Mars just welcomed a new robotic resident.
NASA's InSight lander touched down safely on the Martian surface yesterday (Nov. 26, 2018), pulling off the first successful red planet landing since the Curiosity rover's arrival in August 2012 - on the seventh anniversary of Curiosity's launch, no less.
InSight’s journey to Mars was revolutionary before it even left Earth’s atmosphere. When I watched it launch from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in Lompoc, California, I was witnessing the first-ever interplanetary launch from the West Coast. Six months later, I was able to be present for its final flight moments during a “watch party” held at the California Institute of Technology.
"It was intense, and you could feel the emotion," said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who was in the control room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory during the landing. "It was very, very quiet when it was time to be quiet, and of course very celebratory with every little new piece of information that was received. It's very different being here than watching it on TV, by far. I can tell you that for sure now that I've experienced both."
Signals confirming InSight's touchdown came down to Earth at 11:53 PM PST, eliciting whoops of joy and relief from mission team members and NASA officials here at NASA-JPL, which manages the InSight mission. A few minutes later, the team received confirmation from the lander's radio that it's functioning after the landing.
But the tension hasn't completely dissipated and won't for a while yet; mission team members won't know whether InSight successfully deployed its solar panels until later tonight (Nov. 27) at the earliest. Without those arrays extended, the lander cannot survive, let alone probe the red planet's interior like never before - the main goal of the $850 million USD InSight mission.
If the arrays do unfurl as planned, InSight will join a relatively select club - less than 40 percent of all Mars missions over the decades have successfully arrived at their destination.
The bright side is that things are looking good for InSight, but as exciting as the landing was, all of this just preludes the main event - InSight's investigation on Mars.
Over the next two Earth years, the lander will probe Mars' interior structure and composition in unprecedented detail. InSight will use two main science instruments to do this: a heat probe that will hammer itself up to 16 feet (5 meters) beneath the Martian surface, and a suite of three incredibly precise seismometers, which will be on the lookout for "marsquakes," meteorite strikes, and other jolts.
"That is the goal of the InSight mission - to actually map out the inside of Mars in three dimensions, so that we understand the inside of Mars as well as we have come to understand the surface of Mars," Bridenstine said.
Scientists can use Mars as a sort of laboratory to understand how rocky planets in general form. That's because the red planet’s insides have been more or less frozen in place since shortly after Mars formed about 4.5 billion years ago. We can't look to Earth as a time capsule in this way because our planet's insides have been roiled continuously over the eons by plate tectonics, mantle convection, and other processes.
So don't expect InSight to dazzle you with pretty pictures. The mission isn't interested in cool surface features, which explains why it landed on the Elysium Planitia; the plain is smooth and flat with a paucity of boulders, boosting the odds of a safe landing. Additionally, InSight is a lander, not a rover. It doesn’t roam about - so any photos that it takes over the course of its mission will very literally be in the same exact area.
(Enjoy this dust-covered snapshot, however - a postcard sent back from InSight minutes after landing to let us know it's doing just fine.)
It'll also take a while for the spacecraft to get up and running on Mars. InSight will use its robotic arm to place the heat probe, the seismometer suite, and a weather shield on the ground. No other Mars mission has done such an instrument deployment - science gear tends to be fixed to the bodies or arms of Martian spacecraft, and the InSight team wants to make sure they get it right. So, once they get a look at InSight's Martian surroundings, they'll practice the deployment over and over using a testbed lander here at JPL.
Actual deployment probably won't happen until two or three months from now, and it'll take another month or so to calibrate the instruments for use on Mars. And it'll likely take the full two-year mission lifetime (or close to it) to get a really detailed look at the Martian interior.
Nonetheless, things are getting pretty exciting over on our rocky neighbor.
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Source: This story was originally published on Space.com. I am republishing a lightly edited version on SkyFeed in light of interest on the subject. Wall, Mike. "Touchdown on Mars! NASA's InSight Lands to Peet Inside the Red Planet." Space.com. 26 Nov, 2018. Web article. Citation: Rovira, Lia N. "InSight Touches Down on Mars! What's Next?" SkyFeed. 27 Nov, 2018. Web article.