“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.
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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acronym A word made by combining some of the starting letter or groups of letters from a number of words. For instance, STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Radar is an acronym for RAdio Detection And Ranging. Even laser is an acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.
engineer A person who uses science to solve problems. As a verb, to engineer means to design a device, material or process that will solve some problem or unmet need.
equator An imaginary line around Earth (or other celestial body) that divides it into the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.
lander A special, small vehicle designed to ferry humans or scientific equipment between a spacecraft and the celestial body they will explore.
lens (in physics) A transparent material that can either focus or spread out parallel rays of light as they pass through it. (in optics) A curved piece of transparent material (such as glass) that bends incoming light in such a way as to focus it at a particular point in space. Or something, such as gravity, that can mimic some of the light bending attributes of a physical lens.
Mars The fourth planet from the sun, just one planet out from Earth. Like Earth, it has seasons and moisture. But its diameter is only about half as big as Earth’s.
NASA Short for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Created in 1958, this U.S. agency has become a leader in space research and in stimulating public interest in space exploration. It was through NASA that the United States sent people into orbit and ultimately to the moon. It also has sent research craft to study planets and other celestial objects in our solar system.
planet A celestial object that orbits a star, is big enough for gravity to have squashed it into a roundish ball and has cleared other objects out of the way in its orbital neighborhood. The solar system includes eight planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.
propulsion The act or process of driving something forward, using a force. For instance, jet engines are one source of propulsion used for keeping airplanes aloft.
Red Planet A nickname for Mars.
satellite A moon orbiting a planet or a vehicle or other manufactured object that orbits some celestial body in space.
seismic wave A wave traveling through the ground produced by an earthquake or some other means.
seismograph (also known as a seismometer ) An instrument that detects and measures tremors (known as seismic waves) as they pass through Earth.