Six minutes of terror, then rover lands on Mars

Six minutes of terror, then rover lands on Mars

Six minutes of terror, then rover lands on Mars

A man takes pictures of a model of the CubeSat MarCO which trails the InSight lander on its mission to Mars at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., on November 26, 2018.

Flight controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. leapt out of their seats and erupted in screams, applause and laughter as news came in that the three-legged InSight lander had touched down on the red planet.

Because of the distance between Earth and Mars, it took eight minutes for confirmation to arrive, relayed by a pair of tiny satellites that had been trailing InSight throughout the six-month, 300-million-mile (482-million-kilometer) journey.

If Insight lives through the perilous descent and lands in one piece, it will mean a small corner of an alien planet will be forever British.

It is NASA's eighth successful Mars landing since the 1976 Vikings.

While InSight's main mission goals are hidden away out of sight under the planet's surface, it is equipped with two cameras designed for navigation and hazard avoidance.

NASA last landed on Mars in 2012 with the Curiosity rover. But the quick look at the vista showed a flat surface with few if any rocks-just what scientists were hoping for.

"We hit the Martian atmosphere at 12,300 mph (19,800 kilometers per hour), and the whole sequence to touching down on the surface took only six-and-a-half minutes", InSight project manager Tom Hoffman at JPL said.

The pioneering mission will also mark a milestone in this nation's space industry because it could be the very first time British technology has survived a journey to the Red Planet. The cubesats, intended primarily as technology demonstrations, were created to provide a realtime relay of telemetry from InSight during landing, without which it would have been hours before controllers knew if the spacecraft had landed successfully.

What will NASA's Mars InSight lander study?

"This image is really our farewell to InSight, our wish for good luck and a farewell for Mars itself as we continue on said Andrew Klesh, the chief engineer for the CubeSats".

"Landing on Mars is one of the hardest single jobs that people have to do in planetary exploration", InSight's lead scientist, Bruce Banerdt, said before the landing. While we wait for everything to get set up, InSight will snap pictures of the surface of Mars and send them back to NASA.

InSight will be landing at Elysium Planitia, called "the biggest parking lot on Mars" by astronomers.

InSight will detect geophysical signals deep below the Martian surface, including marsquakes and heat.

The stationary probe is programmed to pause for 16 minutes for the dust to settle, literally, around its landing site, before disc-shaped solar panels are unfurled like wings to provide power to the spacecraft.

It will spend 24 months - about one Martian year - taking seismic and temperature readings to unlock mysteries about how Mars formed and, by extension, the origins of the Earth and other rocky planets of the inner solar system. That will be left to future rovers, such as Nasa's Mars 2020 mission, which will collect rocks that will eventually be brought back to Earth and analysed for evidence of ancient life. While it'll be some time before that happens, space enthusiasts have something to analyze in the interim: InSight's first photograph of Mars, which can be seen below.

No lander has dug deeper on Mars than several inches, and no seismometer has ever worked on the planet. The oldest geological history of Earth has been erased by later processes, such as plate tectonics and erosion, which are less active on Mars.

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