Mars photo

On Monday at 11:52:59 a.m. Pacific Standard Time, NASA successfully landed the InSight spacecraft on the surface of Mars. The intrepid spacecraft survived ‘seven minutes of terror’ during landing only to softly touch down on the dusty surface of the red planet. Despite having successfully landed a few spacecraft on Mars, the odds of having this go well were still pretty low—less than 40 percent. Mars has just enough atmosphere to set an incoming object on fire, and not enough to really slow it down. Landing anything there requires the utmost precision, planning, and an understanding of that pesky thing called physics. But the years of planning paid off.

Aside from Earth, Mars is the most closely studied planet in the solar system. However, in spite of having orbiters, landers, and rovers visit over the years, no spacecraft has ever focused on the interior of the planet. We don’t know how big the core is, what it is made of, or if the planet is still active. This is what InSight will investigate over its two year primary mission.

InSight’s next step is to deploy its solar arrays—the lander’s only source of power. It has to wait for the literal dust to settle before unfolding them so they can begin collecting Martian sunlight.

Troy Hudson, Instrument Systems Engineer for InSight, is thrilled to have the lander safely on the ground—and to begin collecting data. “But first InSight has to begin the process of what the team is calling ‘secondary EDL,’” he explains.

InSight is the first lander to not have its science instruments locked into place on its chassis. Instead the robot has to use an articulating arm to lift each tool up and out, and set them down on the surface. In the days and weeks ahead InSight will assess the health of its robotic arm and uplink health checks to the instruments. The team will also do a detailed survey of the area so they can choose the best spot for each device to go.

This entire process will take around three months, starting with the placement of a French-made seismometer. This is a first for all of planetary exploration—no spacecraft has ever attempted to grasp anything on another planet. No pressure, InSight!

InSight team member Elizabeth Barrett likens the use of the robotic arm to the infuriating stress of the claw game at a carnival—if the plushie you were trying to win was located on another planet, and you had to release it with as much care as you picked it up.

The team estimates it will take one month or so to get all of the instruments calibrated. Then, as Principal Investigator Bruce Banerdt says, “the really deep questions can begin—hold onto your hat for awhile.”