INSIGHT LANDS SAFELY ON MARS

Teams in mission control rooms at NASA-funded Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and its contractor Lockheed Martin in Colorado erupted in applause on Monday as InSight became the eighth lander to reach the surface of Mars undamaged.

Viewers online watched a livestream of their moment of victory as controllers at NASA’s JPL shared the first image of InSight’s landing zone in the Elysium Planitia plains taken by a fisheye lens camera on its belly. The lens cover was specked with dust, but the flat surrounding area could be ideal for the lander to eventually dig deeper than any Mars lander has ever burrowed to answer mysteries about how the red planet changed over billions of years.

The first image taken by the InSight lander of the Elysium Planitia plains. (Credit: NASA’s JPL)
The mission control room at NASA’s JPL receives news of InSight’s landing. (Credit: NASA’s JPL)

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine was in the control room at NASA’s JPL, and said during the livestream that he got a phone call from Vice President Mike Pence “within seconds of mission success.” Bridenstine said Pence passed on congratulations to NASA’s JPL, the lander contractor Lockheed Martin, the United Launch Alliance that launched the lander in May on an Atlas V-401 rocket, and the space agencies of France and Germany that both contributed science instruments to the lander.

“Every milestone is something that happened eight minutes ago,” Bridenstine said, explaining that the communications time delay between Earth and Mars made watching the landing a “unique experience.”

InSight, short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, through November 2020 will answer questions about how rocky planets like the Earth are formed. A self-hammering nail built by the German space agency DLR will dig five meters into the surface carrying a heat flow probe to collect heat measurements. 

The French space agency CNES built a package of six seismometers that the lander will place on the surface to detect quakes or other activity within the planet called SEIS, short for the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure. The NASA InSight team will spend the next “two or three months” planning the next steps to hammer the probe into the ground and where to place the package of seismometers, Philippe Laudet, principal investigator for SEIS, said during the livestream shortly after the landing. 

The InSight team will collect data during this deployment process, but Laudet said “the best data to make the best science will be about the beginning of March.”

JPL also wants to answer whether Mars could sustain water beneath the surface. Subsurface temperatures measured by the heat flow probe “will help us understand whether water can exist in liquid form or frozen,” Bruce Banerdt, JPL’s principal investigator for InSight told me in an email.

Seismic measurements will also “help us understand the composition of the deep interior of the planet, where most of the water on a planet eventually comes from,” Banerdt said. “That will show whether water could be trapped deep inside Mars and how close to the surface we could have water.” 

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