Quake-scouting lander safely touches down on Mars

This NASA lander will be the first to study the Red Planet’s interior

This is an artist’s view of what it might have looked like when the InSight was about to touch down on Mars. The craft successfully landed November 26 on the Red Planet.

JPL-CALTECH/NASA

“Touchdown confirmed. InSight is on the surface of Mars!”

With that, spacecraft engineer Christine Szalai established that NASA’s newest lander had safely touched down on the Red Planet, November 26. Her report was part of a live broadcast. It came from mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

The new lander’s name is an acronym. InSight is short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport. As that techy name suggests, the lander’s mission will be to study the Red Planet’s interior.

The lander sent its first picture — which mostly showed the inside of the dust cover on its camera lens — shortly after landing. The first image from its Instrument Deployment Camera, taken shortly after landing, shows the spacecraft’s body. You can see its folded-up robotic arm and the wide flat expanse of the landing site: Elysium Planitia.

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The is the first picture of the Martian surface by InSight. The protective cap covering the camera lens hasn’t been removed yet, so most of the image is speckled with dust. Still, a lander leg shows up toward the bottom of the shot.
NASA

Later, the lander opened its solar panels and began charging its batteries. Soon the lander will stretch out its robotic arm and take photos of the ground. That will allow researchers back on Earth to decide where to have the lander place its scientific instruments. These include a seismograph and drill.

Over the next Martian year (about two Earth years), InSight will listen for “Marsquakes” and other seismic waves rippling through the planet. The lander will also drill 5 meters (16.4 feet) below the surface to measure the planet’s internal heat flow. This will offer one sign of how geologically active Mars still is.

InSight’s touchdown is the eighth successful NASA Mars landing. The lander touched down at about 2:55 p.m. Eastern time in a wide, flat plain near Mars’ equator. News of the landing was relayed by a pair of tiny satellites (called MarCO and nicknamed WALL-E and EVE) that travelled to Mars with InSight.

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JPL-CALTECH/NASA
The first image from InSight’s Instrument Deployment Camera shows a folded-up robotic arm and where the craft landed — Elysium Planitia.

Lisa Grossman is the astronomy writer. She has a degree in astronomy from Cornell University and a graduate certificate in science writing from University of California, Santa Cruz. She lives near Boston.

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