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14 April 2024

NASA spacecraft InSight lands successfully on the Red Planet

Photo: EPA


NASA's $993 million (€876m) Mars InSight lander has successfully touched down on the Red Planet to listen for quakes and study how rocky planets formed, the US space agency said Monday.

"Touchdown confirmed," a mission control operator said as cheers erupted and scientists leapt from their seats to hug each other at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Just minutes after landing, InSight sent its first picture from the surface of the Red Planet.

Mars Insight's goal is to listen for quakes and tremors as a way to unveil the Red Planet's inner mysteries, how it formed billions of years ago, and by extension, how other rocky planets like Earth took shape.

The spacecraft will spend 24 months on the planet.

The unmanned spacecraft launched nearly seven months ago, and is NASA's first to attempt to touch down on Earth's neighbouring planet since the Curiosity rover arrived in 2012.

More than half of 43 attempts to reach Mars with rovers, orbiters and probes by space agencies from around the world have failed.

NASA is the only space agency to have made it, and is invested in these robotic missions as a way to prepare for the first Mars-bound human explorers in the 2030s.

"We never take Mars for granted. Mars is hard," said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for the science mission directorate, on Sunday.

'An absolutely terrifying thought'

The high drama of the entry, descent and landing phase began at 11:47am (1947 GMT) at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, home to mission control for Mars InSight.

A preprogrammed sequence, coined the "seven minutes of terror", followed – a perilous descent into the atmosphere around the Red Planet.

Speeding faster than a bullet at 12,300 mph (19,800 kph), the heat-shielded spacecraft would have encountered scorching frictions as it entered Mars' atmosphere.

The heat shield would then have soared to a temperature of 2,700 Fahrenheit (about 1,500 Celsius), before being discarded, the three landing legs deployed and the parachute would then have popped out.

At this point the spacecraft's thruster would have begun to fire, further slowing down the 800-pound (365 kilogram) spacecraft to a speed of just about 5 mph (8 kph) for its touchdown on the surface.

Goal: 3D map of inner Mars

Zurbuchen described InSight as "unique" because the waist-high lander contains instruments that were contributed by several European space agencies.

France's Centre National d'Études Spatiales (CNES) made the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) instrument, the key element for sensing quakes.

The German Aerospace Center (DLR) provided a self-hammering mole that can burrow 16 feet (five metres) into the surface – further than any instrument before – to measure heat flow.

Spain's Centro de Astrobiologia made the spacecraft's wind sensors.

Other significant contributions to the project came from the Space Research Centre of the Polish Academy of Sciences and Astronika in Poland, the Swiss Institute of Technology in Switzerland, and both Imperial College and Oxford University in Britain.

Together, these instruments will use physics to study geological processes, said Bruce Banerdt, InSight's principal investigator at Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

By listening for tremors on Mars, whether from quakes or meteor impacts or even volcanic activity, scientists can learn more about its interior and reveal how the planet formed.

The goal is to map the inside of Mars in three dimensions, "so we understand the inside of Mars as well as we have come to understand the outside of Mars," Banerdt told reporters.

Understanding how Mars formed could reveal more about the processes that formed Earth, too.

Photos: AP, AFP, & EPA