Cheers and applause erupted at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory on Monday as a waist-high unmanned lander, called InSight, touched down on Mars, capping a nearly seven-year journey from design to launch to landing.
The dramatic arrival of the $993 million spacecraft — designed to listen for quakes and tremors as a way to unveil the Red Planet’s inner mysteries, how it formed billions of years ago and, by extension, how other rocky planets like Earth took shape — marked the eighth successful landing on Mars in NASA’s history.
— NASA HQ PHOTO (@nasahqphoto) November 26, 2018
“Touchdown confirmed,” a mission control operator at NASA said, as pent-up anxiety and excitement surged through the room, and dozens of scientists leapt from their seats to embrace each other.
“It was intense and you could feel the emotion,” said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, in an interview on NASA television afterwards.
Bridenstine also said President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence had watched on television and called to congratulate the US space agency for its hard work.
“Ultimately, the day is coming when we land humans on Mars,” Bridenstine said, adding that the goal is to do so by the mid-2030s. The vehicle appeared to be in good shape, according to the first communications received from the Martian surface. But as expected, the dust kicked up during the landing obscured the first picture InSight sent back, which was heavily flecked.
InSight’s view is a flat, smooth expanse called Elysium Planitia, but its workspace is below the surface, where it will study Mars’ deep interior. pic.twitter.com/3EU70jXQJw
— NASA (@NASA) November 26, 2018
France’s Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES) made the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) instrument, the key element for sensing quakes. The principal investigator on the French seismometer, Philippe Lognonne, said he was “relieved and very happy” at the outcome.
“I’ve just received confirmation that there are no rocks in front of the lander,” he told AFP.
Next, InSight must open its solar arrays, as NASA waits until later in the afternoon to learn if that final, crucial phase went as planned.
The spacecraft is meant to be solar-powered once it reaches the surface of Mars.
Entry, descent, landing
The spacecraft is NASA’s first to touch down on Earth’s neighboring planet since the Curiosity rover arrived in 2012.
More than half of 43 attempts to reach Mars with rovers, orbiters and probes by space agencies from around the world have failed. NASA is the only space agency to have made it, and is invested in these robotic missions as a way to prepare for the first Mars-bound human explorers in the 2030s.
“We never take Mars for granted. Mars is hard,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for the science mission directorate, said on Sunday.
Aaah…soaking up the Sun with my solar panels. 🌞 After a long flight, and thrilling #MarsLanding, it feels great to get a good stretch and recharge my batteries. (Like, literally.) It’s just what I’ll need to really start getting in tune with #Mars. https://t.co/yse3VEst3G pic.twitter.com/LpsiI0KNNz
— NASAInSight (@NASAInSight) November 27, 2018
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, and ended one second before 1953 GMT.
A carefully orchestrated sequence — already fully preprogrammed on board the spacecraft — unfolded over the following several minutes, coined “six and a half minutes of terror.”
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.
The heat shield soared to a temperature of 2,700 Fahrenheit (about 1,500 Celsius) before it was discarded, the three landing legs deployed and the parachute popped out, easing InSight down to the Martian surface.