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NASA InSight lander arrives on Martian surface

(27 November 2018 - JPL) Mars has just received its newest robotic resident. NASA's Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) lander successfully touched down on the Red Planet after an almost seven-month, 300-million-mile (458-million-kilometer) journey from Earth.

InSight's two-year mission will be to study the deep interior of Mars to learn how all celestial bodies with rocky surfaces, including Earth and the Moon, formed.

InSight launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California May 5. The lander touched down Monday, Nov. 26, near Mars' equator on the western side of a flat, smooth expanse of lava called Elysium Planitia, with a signal affirming a completed landing sequence at 11:52:59 a.m. PST (2:52:59 p.m. EST).

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The Instrument Deployment Camera (IDC), located on the robotic arm of NASA's InSight lander, took this picture of the Martian surface on Nov. 26, 2018, the same day the spacecraft touched down on the Red Planet. The camera's transparent dust cover is still on in this image, to prevent particulates kicked up during landing from settling on the camera's lens. This image was relayed from InSight to Earth via NASA's Odyssey spacecraft, currently orbiting Mars. (courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

"Today, we successfully landed on Mars for the eighth time in human history," said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. "InSight will study the interior of Mars and will teach us valuable science as we prepare to send astronauts to the Moon and later to Mars. This accomplishment represents the ingenuity of America and our international partners, and it serves as a testament to the dedication and perseverance of our team. The best of NASA is yet to come, and it is coming soon."

The landing signal was relayed to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, via NASA's two small experimental Mars Cube One (MarCO) CubeSats, which launched on the same rocket as InSight and followed the lander to Mars. They are the first CubeSats sent into deep space. After successfully carrying out a number of communications and in-flight navigation experiments, the twin MarCOs were set in position to receive transmissions during InSight's entry, descent and landing.

From Fast to Slow

"We hit the Martian atmosphere at 12,300 mph (19,800 kilometers per hour), and the whole sequence to touching down on the surface took only six-and-a-half minutes," said InSight project manager Tom Hoffman at JPL. "During that short span of time, InSight had to autonomously perform dozens of operations and do them flawlessly - and by all indications that is exactly what our spacecraft did."

Confirmation of a successful touchdown is not the end of the challenges of landing on the Red Planet. InSight's surface-operations phase began a minute after touchdown. One of its first tasks is to deploy its two decagonal solar arrays, which will provide power. That process begins 16 minutes after landing and takes another 16 minutes to complete.

NASA's InSight has sent signals to Earth indicating that its solar panels are open and collecting sunlight on the Martian surface. NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter relayed the signals, which were received on Earth at about 5:30 p.m. PST (8:30 p.m. EST). Solar array deployment ensures the spacecraft can recharge its batteries each day. Odyssey also relayed a pair of images showing InSight's landing site.

"The InSight team can rest a little easier tonight now that we know the spacecraft solar arrays are deployed and recharging the batteries," said Tom Hoffman, InSight's project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, which leads the mission. "It's been a long day for the team. But tomorrow begins an exciting new chapter for InSight: surface operations and the beginning of the instrument deployment phase."

InSight's twin solar arrays are each 7 feet (2.2 meters) wide; when they're open, the entire lander is about the size of a big 1960s convertible. Mars has weaker sunlight than Earth because it's much farther away from the Sun. But the lander doesn't need much to operate: The panels provide 600 to 700 watts on a clear day, enough to power a household blender and plenty to keep its instruments conducting science on the Red Planet. Even when dust covers the panels - what is likely to be a common occurrence on Mars - they should be able to provide at least 200 to 300 watts.

The panels are modeled on those used with NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander, though InSight's are slightly larger in order to provide more power output and to increase their structural strength. These changes were necessary to support operations for one full Mars year (two Earth years).

In the coming days, the mission team will unstow InSight's robotic arm and use the attached camera to snap photos of the ground so that engineers can decide where to place the spacecraft's scientific instruments. It will take two to three months before those instruments are fully deployed and sending back data.

In the meantime, InSight will use its weather sensors and magnetometer to take readings from its landing site at Elysium Planitia - its new home on Mars.

InSight will begin to collect science data within the first week after landing, though the teams will focus mainly on preparing to set InSight's instruments on the Martian ground. At least two days after touchdown, the engineering team will begin to deploy InSight's 5.9-foot-long (1.8-meter-long) robotic arm so that it can take images of the landscape.

"Landing was thrilling, but I'm looking forward to the drilling," said InSight principal investigator Bruce Banerdt of JPL. "When the first images come down, our engineering and science teams will hit the ground running, beginning to plan where to deploy our science instruments. Within two or three months, the arm will deploy the mission's main science instruments, the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) and Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) instruments."

InSight will operate on the surface for one Martian year, plus 40 Martian days, or sols, until Nov. 24, 2020. The mission objectives of the two small MarCOs which relayed InSight's telemetry was completed after their Martian flyby.

"That's one giant leap for our intrepid, briefcase-sized robotic explorers," said Joel Krajewski, MarCO project manager at JPL. "I think CubeSats have a big future beyond Earth's orbit, and the MarCO team is happy to trailblaze the way."

With InSight's landing at Elysium Planitia, NASA has successfully soft-landed a vehicle on the Red Planet eight times.

"Every Mars landing is daunting, but now with InSight safely on the surface we get to do a unique kind of science on Mars," said JPL director Michael Watkins. "The experimental MarCO CubeSats have also opened a new door to smaller planetary spacecraft. The success of these two unique missions is a tribute to the hundreds of talented engineers and scientists who put their genius and labor into making this a great day."

About InSight

JPL manages InSight for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. InSight is part of NASA's Discovery Program, managed by the agency's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The MarCO CubeSats were built and managed by JPL. Lockheed Martin Space in Denver built the InSight spacecraft, including its cruise stage and lander, and supports spacecraft operations for the mission.

A number of European partners, including France's Centre National d'Études Spatiales (CNES), the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris (IPGP) and the German Aerospace Center (DLR), are supporting the InSight mission. CNES and IPGP provided the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) instrument, with significant contributions from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Germany, the Swiss Institute of Technology (ETH) in Switzerland, Imperial College and Oxford University in the United Kingdom, and JPL. DLR provided the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) instrument, with significant contributions from the Space Research Center (CBK) of the Polish Academy of Sciences and Astronika in Poland. Spain's Centro de Astrobiología (CAB) supplied the wind sensors.