NASA has confirmed that its InSight spacecraft has safely touched down on Mars, the first successful landing on the Red Planet in more than six years, on a mission to study the Red Planet's interior.
A signal from the spacecraft, which launched from Earth on May 5 this year, was received at NASA’s mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California at 2.53pm EST today.
InSight, which weighs about 358 kilograms (789 pounds), touched down as planned in a region called Elysium Planitia, near the Martian equator, which had been chosen for its rather tame characteristics. Being flat and devoid of rocks or interesting features, it was the perfect location for a safe landing with few obstacles in the way of the spacecraft. NASA described it as "the biggest parking lot on Mars".
The landing was the culmination of the so-called "seven minutes of terror", after InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) entered the atmosphere at 2.47pm EST at a speed of 19,800 kilometers (12,300 miles) per hour, withstanding peak temperatures of 1,500°C (2,700°F) during the landing.
It deployed a parachute to slow itself after passing through the atmosphere, before using onboard rocket thrusters to slow the spacecraft to about 8 kilometers (5 miles) per hour. It then touched down on the surface of Mars at 2.53pm EST, Earth time.
The next key step will be for it to successfully unfurl its two 10-sided solar panels. Together the size of a ping-pong table, they are necessary for InSight to produce power and survive on the surface. NASA's Mars Odyssey spacecraft, which is in orbit around the Red Planet, is expected to provide confirmation this has happened at 8.35pm EST.
This is the first successful landing on Mars since NASA's Curiosity rover touched down in August 2012. Unlike Curiosity, however, InSight is not designed to search for signs of life or ancient water on Mars. Instead, it will try to tell us what's inside Mars, and in turn reveal more about how rocky planets form and evolve.
To do this, it will use a suite of instruments to probe the interior of the planet. This includes monitoring seismic waves known as “marsquakes”, using an underground probe to measure the temperature of the planet, and studying the planet’s “wobble” in its orbit to try and work out what its core is made of.
Its mission, which will last until at least November 2020, will see the lander use a robotic arm to deploy various instruments on the surface. InSight is the first probe ever to use a robotic arm on another planet to deploy its own instruments. Two cameras on board the lander will help pick where to place these instruments on the ground and to take images of InSight's surroundings.
It is also the first probe to venture deep into the surface of Mars. The Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3), developed by the German Aerospace Centre (DLR), will use a hammer to place sensors up to 5 meters (16 feet) underground.
We think Mars once had vast amounts of water on its surface, before the loss of its magnetic field and the majority of its atmosphere saw this water evaporate. By measuring the temperature underground, and studying the planet's wobble, scientists hope to work out if its core is still active and what it is made of, perhaps telling us more about the mysterious loss of its magnetic field.
During the course of the mission, InSight is expected to brave some pretty testing conditions, with temperatures of between -20 and -100°C (-4 and -148°F). It is currently winter at its landing site, with the probe touching down in mid-afternoon Mars local time.
The mission also carried with it two miniature spacecraft, called MarCo-A and B. Flying alongside InSight, these two CubeSats – the first ever sent to deep space – provided the lander with another way to stay in contact with Earth as it made its way to the surface. The orbiting Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and Mars Odyssey spacecraft also relayed messages back home.
The successful landing of InSight brings the total number of successful Mars landings up to eight. There are now two operational machines on Mars – InSight and the Curiosity rover – with NASA’s Opportunity rover still out of action following a recent dust storm.
As for InSight, an exciting future of scientific study on Mars awaits. And if the mission is successful, it may tell us more about the interior of Mars than ever before.