PASADENA: Nasa’s Mars lander InSight touched down safely on the surface of the Red Planet on Monday to begin its two-year mission as the first spacecraft designed to explore the deep interior of another world.
Engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), near Los Angeles, said the successful landing was confirmed by signals relayed to Earth from one of two miniature satellites that were launched along with InSight and flying past Mars when it arrived shortly before 2000 GMT
Minutes after the landing, JPL controllers received a fuzzy photograph of the probe’s new surroundings on Martian soil.
Members of the mission control team burst into applause and cheered in relief as they received data showing that the spacecraft had survived its perilous descent to the Martian surface.
The landing capped a six-month journey of 548 million kilometres from Earth, following its launch from California in May.
Carrying instruments that detect planetary heat and seismic rumblings never measured anywhere else but Earth, the stationary lander streaked into the thin Martian atmosphere at 19,795km per hour.
Its 125-kilometre descent was then slowed by atmospheric friction, a giant parachute and retro rockets, bringing the three-legged spacecraft to a gentle landing six- and-a-half minutes later.
InSight came to rest as planned in the middle of a vast, barren plain called the Elysium Planitia, close to the planet’s equator.
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.
The 360-kg InSight — its name is short for Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport — marks the 21st US-launched Mars mission, dating back to the Mariner fly-bys of the 1960s. Nearly two dozen other Mars missions have been sent by other countries.
InSight’s perilous descent through the Martian atmosphere had stomachs churning and nerves stretched to the max. Although an old pro at this, Nasa last attempted a landing at Mars six years ago.
“Landing on Mars is one of the hardest single jobs that people have to do in planetary exploration,” noted InSight’s lead scientist, Bruce Banerdt.
InSight will explore Elysium Planitia, the plain near the Martian equator that Nasa hopes is as flat as a parking lot with few, if any, rocks. This is no rock-collecting expedition. Instead, the stationary lander will use its 6-foot robotic arm to place a mechanical mole and seismometer on the ground.
The self-hammering mole will burrow 16 feet down to measure the planet’s internal heat, while the ultra-high-tech seismometer listens for possible marsquakes. Nothing like this has been attempted before at our smaller next-door neighbour, nearly 160 million kilometres away. –Reuters