Tuesday, 18 December, 2018

Mars touchdown: Safe landing for NASA's InSight spacecraft

The United Launch Alliance Atlas-V rocket With In Sight onboard at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Image Getty The United Launch Alliance Atlas-V rocket With In Sight onboard at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Image Getty
Kristen Harrington | 30 November, 2018, 07:40

With a host of scientific instruments on board, the lander will study the Red Planet's interior, gathering groundbreaking data about Mars' composition and the planet's tectonic activity.

"MarCO was there to relay information back from InSight in real time, and we did that extraordinarily well", said Andy Klesh, MarCO chief engineer, at a press conference at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory here November 26 two hours after the InSight landing. That's the time it takes for the radio signal to travel 91 million miles from Mars to Earth. "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".

But getting there was the challenge.

It's been six years since the last NASA mission that put a spacecraft on the surface of Mars.

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The two satellites not only transmitted the good news in nearly real time, they also sent back InSight's first snapshot of Mars just 4 1/2 minutes after landing.

"It was intense and you could feel the emotion", said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine after the landing.

Coming in at six times the speed of a high-velocity bullet, and at an angle of precisely 12 degrees, the lander's aeroshell cut through the Martian atmosphere at about 2:47 p.m. At one point, it descended through the atmosphere at a speed of 12,300 miles per hour, compressing the surrounding gas, and generating temperatures up to 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit or 1,500 degrees Celsius. It then deployed its parachutes to slow it down.

Part of the reason that the landing is so hard is because there will be no human guiding InSight's descent-it will all be automated.

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The landing site was Elysium Planitia, a flat plain. With this safe landing, I'm here. This will help scientists determine whether Earth and Mars are made from the same material, and how active Mars really is under the surface. It's job, now that it has arrived at Mars, is to sit quietly on the surface and just listen to the planet. In fact, it will be two to three months before InSight's robotic arm even sets its instruments on the martian surface, according to NASA.

And they can actually interpolate that, they think, all the way down to the core of the planet.

By examining and mapping the interior of Mars, scientists hope to learn why the rocky planets in our solar system turned out so different and why Earth became a haven for life.

The craft had a "perfect" landing following its journey to the red planet and is reported to be "working perfectly".

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