After traveling for nearly seven months and more than 300 million miles through deep space, NASA’s Mars Probe, InSight, finally entered the Martian atmosphere on Nov 26 at 2:47 pm ET, beginning the entry, descent and landing (EDL) phase of the mission.
The EDL began with the lander plunging into the thin Martian atmosphere at 12,300 miles per hour with just about seven minutes at its disposal to decelerate to a touchdown speed of 5mph.
Two minutes into the decent, InSight’s protective heat shield had reached peak heating of 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit (1,482 Celsius), causing a brief weakening of the lander’s radio signal.
Then began InSight’s decelerating maneuvers, with the parachute deploying first, followed by the heat shield jettisoning – all of this happening within three minutes of entry.
The descent slowed, but not enough, as the probe was still doing around 180 miles per hour.
This is when the lander deployed its tripod legs, got rid of the back shell and fired the retro rockets, coming to rest on the equatorial plane of Elysium Planitia at 2:54 p.m. ET, successfully completing the EDL sequence.
“We hit the Martian atmosphere at 19,800 kilometers per hour, and the whole sequence to touching down on the surface took only six-and-a-half minutes,” said Tom Hoffman – InSight project manager 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,” said Hoffman.
No sooner had the landing confirmation “beep” reached NASA, the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory erupted into applause and cheers, and high-fives, and hugs – a deeply satisfying conclusion to the seven-minute-agony of anticipation they had to endure during the EDL.
“Today, we successfully landed on Mars for the eighth time in human history,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said at the post-landing presser.
“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,” Bridenstine said.
“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,” said the NASA administrator, adding that “the best of NASA is yet to come, and it is coming soon.”
The first picture captured by InSight shows nothing more than a lot of black dirt spots on the camera’s lens-covering, which will be taken off this week.
The probe’s main mission is still two to three months away from actually starting because that’s how long it will take the robotic arm to deploy all the mission equipment on the surface – the process having already begun with the unfurling of the spacecraft’s 7-feet solar arrays.
Meanwhile, NASA scientists will have to make do with photographs that the lander can capture from its current position before meaningful science data starts coming in sometime in March.
That said, the fact that InSight is sitting pretty on the planet’s surface after its stressful descent is more than half the battle won, as a thousand things could have gone wrong during the six and a half-minute EDL.
For example, the parachute could have failed to deploy; malfunctioning of the landing legs was a possibility; the heat shield could have failed to jettison or it could have grazed the lander as it dropped; a surface obstruction could have botched the landing; and so on.
But no such thing happened and the relief was evident in Hoffman’s statement.
“The InSight team can rest a little easier tonight now that we know the spacecraft solar arrays are deployed and recharging the batteries,” he said.
“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,” Hoffman added.
Among the myriad scientific instruments is the InSight’s seismometer called SEIS (Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure) – a round, dome-like instrument that will monitor seismic vibrations on the Red Planet.
Also included is the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package, featuring a “self-hammering nail” capable of penetrating 5 meters into the planet’s crust to read the heat flow pattern inside Mars.
“Landing was thrilling, but I’m looking forward to the drilling,” InSight’s principal investigator Bruce said.
“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,” said an excited Banerdt.
“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,” he said.
Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, better known as InSight, was launched aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on May 5, 2018.
Also on board were two experimental CubeSats, MarCO-A and MarCO-B, which actually beamed back data about InSight as it entered the Martian atmosphere on Monday.
Although launched with the lander, they flew separately to Mars and have proved that CubeSats can hold their own in deep space.
They were not designed to land but do a flyby of the Red Planet, instead, and wait for their short operational lives to end, which is exactly what they are presently doing, now that their mission is over.
“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 Michael Watkins, director at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
“The experimental MarCO CubeSats have also opened a new door to smaller planetary spacecraft,” Watkins said.
“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,” he added.