The National Aeronautics and Space Administration on Monday successfully landed a space probe on Mars that will study the interiors of the planet during a two-year mission. The Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport lander, better known as InSight, touched down at 1.33 am IST on Tuesday morning after a 482 million km-journey.
The probe, operated by NASA and built by scientists in the United States, France and Germany, had launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on May 5. It touched down on the western side of the planet on a smooth expanse of lava called Elysium Planitia. It will operate on the planet surface for one Martian year, plus 40 Martian days, until November 24, 2020.
The landing signal was relayed to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California’s Pasadena through the space agency’s two experimental Mars Cube One (MarCO) CubeSats, which launched on the same rocket as InSight and followed the space probe to Mars. According to NASA, CubeSats are a category of spacecraft based on a standardised small size and using off-the-shelf technologies, with many of them made by university students. The CubeSats with InSight are the first ones sent into deep space.
The last NASA spacecraft to land on Mars was the Curiosity rover in 2012.
“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.”
Project Manager Tom Hoffman said that the lander entered the Martian atmosphere at a speed of 19,800 km per hour, activated its heat shields, and then deployed its supersonic parachutes to enable to decrease velocity. “The whole sequence to touching down on the surface took only six-and-a-half minutes,” he said. “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.”
InSight will begin to collect data within the first week after touchdown. Two days after landing, the engineering team will deploy the lander’s 1.8 m-long robotic arm to enable it to photograph the Red Planet’s landscape.
“We are solar powered, so getting the arrays [which will provide power] out and operating is a big deal,” said Hoffman. “With the arrays providing the energy we need to start the cool science operations, we are well on our way to thoroughly investigate what’s inside of Mars for the very first time.”