NASA’s InSight probe successfully lands on Mars

NASA has successfully landed its InSight probe on Mars, ending a six-year gap since a human object last touched down on the Red Planet.

The ‘Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigators, Geodesy and Heat Transport’ craft, or InSight for short, safely landed on Mars’ surface on Monday, 26 November. NASA received a confirmation signal to say it had touched down, drawing its 300 million mile journey to a close after seven months of travelling through space following its 5 May launch.

Landing on Mars is no mean feat, with only 40% of missions to the Red Planet successfully completing the trip in one piece. At the relief of NASA engineers and researchers, InSight found itself inside this 40% after successfully navigating its way through Mars’ atmosphere in a six-and-a-half minute, 12,300mph descent. It safely touched down near the Martian equator at the Elysium Planitia, a smooth expanse of lava charmingly referred to as the biggest parking lot on Mars.

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InSight’s two-year mission is to explore the interior of Mars, hopefully teaching us about the makeup of rocky planets and possibly how our own planet formed. We currently only know large quantities of data about one rocky planet, Earth. This means InSight’s findings might allow us to make comparisons between our planet and another, and will also assist in discovering Earth-like exo-planets with greater accuracy.

InSight has already successfully deployed its solar panels, which will be used throughout the mission to provide InSight with power. Two days after touchdown InSight will deploy its robotic arm, allowing it to take pictures of the surrounding area. However, the primary focus is towards drilling, claims InSight principal investigator Bruce Banerdt of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

After the first images are received from InSight, “our engineering and science teams will hit the ground running,” Banerdt said. He’s hopeful to have deployed the main science instruments, the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) and Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3), within two or three months of the landing.

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In the meantime, a camera mounted on the body of InSight has been taking some initial shots of its new surroundings, providing ample material for InSight’s Twitter account.

InSight wasn’t the only success for NASA on Monday. Alongside InSight was the Mars Cube One (MarCO) mission. This mission consisted of sending two suitcase-sized spacecraft, named CubeSats, into deep space for the first time. Similar to signal boosters for your home Wi-Fi, CubeSats are data-relay units designed to provide the potential for new communication capabilities with Earth. It was thanks to these that InSight was able to send confirmation of its landing.

Although JPL manages InSight for NASA, this mission marked a rare moment of humanity coming together. Institutes from France, Germany, the UK, Switzerland and Spain all helped get InSight to Mars in various ways, from research contributions to the provision of the SEIS and HP3 instruments.

It’s believed that Mars and Earth began their time as celestial bodies together 4.5 billion years ago. Both are thought to be made of the same primordial stuff yet, despite this, they’ve led starkly different paths. If InSight can begin to explain why this happened, and just what it could mean for our home planet, then NASA administrator Jim Bridestine’s comment of “the best of NASA is yet to come” could well ring true.

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