NASA’s newest Mars lander, InSight, touched down on the red planet just before 2:54 PM ET on Monday after a six-month voyage from Earth. A livestream of the robot’s arrival on Mars is available at this link, and includes the mission control staff celebrating at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
InSight—which stands for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport—landed on target in the Elysium Planitia region of Mars, about 400 miles away from NASA’s Curiosity rover. It hit the Martian atmosphere at 12,000 miles per hour and successfully pulled off its entry, descent, and landing sequence.
This sequence is popularly dubbed “the seven minutes of terror” because it involves several extremely risky maneuvers that could make or break the mission. The lander slammed on its brakes by deploying a parachute, ditched its heat shield, and fired retrorockets that guided it gently to the surface. It took eight minutes for news of a successful landing to be transmitted back to Earth.
InSight is the first mission to Mars focused on probing the planet’s interior. Though the lander will remain stationary, it will drill five meters (16 feet) deep into the Martian surface—further down than any surface mission before it.
To accomplish this feat, the lander will deploy a small probe nicknamed “the mole.” Powered by a spring mechanism, the probe will hammer out a hole in half-meter increments until it hits bedrock beneath the rocky outer layer of Mars’ surface. As it descends, the mole will measure the heat emanating from the planet’s interior.
We know Mars is colder than Earth, but patterns of heat flow can reveal whether the planet is an efficient thermal conductor or not, and that helps scientists understand its interior composition.
InSight will also deploy a precision seismometer called the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS). The lander’s robotic arm will place SEIS on the surface, where it will listen for “Marsquakes” and other geological activity. Marsquakes are similar to earthquakes on our own world, though they are less frequent due to the absence of significant tectonic movement on Mars.
Ancient fault lines and asteroid impacts send seismic waves surging through Mars, which SEIS can detect and measure. These readings are like indirect snapshots of the Martian interior, and contain information about its structure and composition.
InSight is also equipped with two cameras, a weather sensor, a retroreflector, magnetometers, and the Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment (RISE), which will study Mars’ innermost core by measuring its rotational wobble. The robot is projected to examine the Martian interior for at least two years.
Be sure to send the InSight team some good vibes today as the lander adjusts to its new home.
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