After more than six months in transit, a probe managed by Pasadena-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory successfully touched down on the surface of Mars today, beginning the first mission designed to study the center of the Red Planet.
The InSight mission — short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport — is the first ever dedicated to Mars’ deep interior, and it is the first NASA mission since the Apollo moon landings to place a seismometer on the soil of another celestial body.
The spacecraft, which launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Barbara County in May, touched down on schedule at 11:54 a.m. California time, sparking cheers and applause at JPL in Pasadena. The craft made a harrowing descent through the Martian atmosphere, with a parachute and retro rockets deployed to cut its speed to a few miles an hour to allow it to safely touch down on the surface.
Minutes later, the craft transmitted its first image from the planet’s surface.
“In the coming months and years … the history books will be rewritten about the interior of Mars,” JPL Director Michael Watkins said at a post-landing news briefing.
The InSight craft is not a rover. It is designed to carry out its mission from a stationary position at its landing site, in an area known as the Elysium Planitia, which JPL officials dubbed “the biggest parking lot on Mars,” providing a flat solid surface for the craft to do its work.
NASA and JPL used radio signals to monitor InSight’s descent to the planet, and was able to quickly confirm touchdown on Mars. Mission managers said earlier it could have taken several hours to confirm the touchdown depending on possible radio signal delays.
As the spacecraft sped toward Mars and began descending through the thin atmosphere — which lacks the type of friction that usually slows landing objects — a parachute was deployed, followed by retro rockets to ease the descent. Suspended legs were used to absorb some of the shock.
The InSight mission is aimed at probing the deep interior of Mars in hopes of shedding light on how similar worlds — like Earth and the moon — were created, according to JPL. Mission officials noted that Mars and Earth were “molded from the same primordial stuff more than 4.5 billion years ago.”
“By comparing Earth’s interior to that of Mars, InSight’s team members hope to better understand our solar system,” according to JPL. “What they learn might even aid the search for Earth-like exoplanets, narrowing down which ones might be able to support life. So while InSight is a Mars mission, it’s also much more than a Mars mission.”
Bruce Banerdt, JPL’s principal investigator for the InSight mission, said it will still be some time before any actual seismology data is collected by the lander. He said in the coming weeks, mission managers will study the area around the lander to determine the best position for the craft’s seismometer.
“It’s time to get going,” he said at the post-landing briefing. “… I’m so proud and privileged to have been a part of it.”