Los Angeles, NASA’s InSight spacecraft touched down safely on Mars on Monday, kicking off a two-year mission to explore the deep interior of the Red Planet.
NASA’s online live broadcast reported InSight touched down on Mars at approximately 2:54 p.m. EST (2000 GMT) on Monday, after a six-month, 300-million-mile (480-million-km) journey, Xinhua news agency reported.
It will detect geophysical signals deep below the Martian surface, including marsquakes and heat. Scientists will also be able to track radio signals from the stationary spacecraft, which vary based on the wobble in Mars’ rotation, according to NASA.
InSight is being followed to Mars by two mini-spacecraft comprising NASA’s Mars Cube One (MarCO), the first deep-space mission for CubeSats. MarCO attempted to relay data from InSight as it enters the planet’s atmosphere and lands.
InSight and MarCO flight controllers monitored and cheered for the spacecraft’s successful entry, descent and landing from mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
Launched on May 5, InSight marks NASA’s first Mars landing since the Curiosity rover in 2012 and the first dedicated to studying the deep interior of Mars.
InSight cruised 301,223,981 miles at a top speed of 6,200 mph, while being followed by two cube satellites, CNN reported.
“We’ve studied Mars from orbit and from the surface since 1965, learning about its weather, atmosphere, geology and surface chemistry,” Lori Glaze, acting director of the Planetary Science Division in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, was quoted as saying by CNN.
“Now we finally will explore inside Mars and deepen our understanding of our terrestrial neighbour as NASA prepares to send human explorers deeper into the solar system.”
InSight robotically guided itself through the landing, outside of a few last minute tweaks by the entry, descent and landing team to the algorithm that guided the lander to the surface.
“While most of the country was enjoying Thanksgiving with their family and friends, the InSight team was busy making the final preparations for Monday’s landing,” said Tom Hoffman, InSight’s project manager.
About 20 minutes before landing, InSight separated from the cruise stage that helped bring it all the way to Mars and turned to position itself for entering the atmosphere.
At 2:47 pm ET, the entry, descent and landing phase began, and InSight entered the atmosphere at 12,300 mph. Peak heating of the protective heat shield reached 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit two minutes later. This is when the intense heat caused a temporary drop in the radio signal from the craft.
Then, the parachute deployed, the craft separated from the heat shield, deployed its three legs and activated radar to sense how far it is from the ground. After getting that radar signal, it separated from the remaining shell and parachute, firing its descent engines known as retrorockets to help slow it down even more, the CNN report said.
InSight then executed a gravity turn to make sure the lander was in the right position before touching down. It slowed down until it reached a consistent 5 mph. Then, it touched down at 2:54 pm ET.
Nasa’s mission control in California erupted with delight when it became clear InSight was safe on the ground, BBC reported. The probe landed safely on a flat plain known as Elysium Planitia, close to the Red Planet’s equator.