After a 300-million-mile journey that lasted more than six months, NASA’s Mars Insight Rover has landed on the red planet. The Insight lander will now begin it’s two-year mission to peer deep into the planet’s interior. It is NASA’s first landing since the space agency’s Curiosity rover in 2012.
The landing site planned for Mars is in the Elysium Planitia region. With a 99% chance of landing, the area stretched 81 miles long and 17 miles wide. All it had to do was burn through 70 miles of thin Martian atmosphere. A supersonic parachute and cluster of descent engines would gradually slow it down before landing on it’s shock-absorbing legs. Debris clouded the Insight lander’s lenses when touching down on Nov. 26.
Back home, every person in the Theodore von Karman Auditorium at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California awaited results. Rows of engineers and analysts were fixed on their screens, as a flight controller announced altitude measurements over an intercom.
“Altitude 400 meters. 300 meters. 200 meters. 80 meters. 60 meters.”
And a few minutes later, the final call: “Touchdown confirmed.”
Cheers and applause erupted. Engineers and workers throw their hands in the air: hugging and shaking hands. What more could they have asked for? NASA’s latest spacecraft had landed successfully on the surface of Mars, all in one piece. Everyone gathered around, watching the Insight lander settle into its final position.
What now? Unlike its predecessors, Insight won’t rove around the planet or even collect samples. It’s mission is admittedly boring and simple: sit on Mars and listen for quakes. The seismic waves will hopefully help planetary scientists learn and structure Mars’ interior, similar to how ultrasound shows inside a person’s body.
It was a worthwhile journey that’s been in development for nearly a decade. Despite a two-year delay because of a defect found in one of the main instruments, the lander successfully launched back in May. And it traveled through the vacuum of space for the last six and a half months, before plunging Mars’ atmosphere on Monday. Now the real work begins.