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Nasa's InSight mission triumphantly touches down on Mars

PASADENA (California) — The InSight lander, Nasa’s latest foray to the red planet, has landed.

The InSight lander has joined Curiosity on Mars after a journey of more than six months and 300 million miles.

The InSight lander has joined Curiosity on Mars after a journey of more than six months and 300 million miles.

PASADENA (California) — The InSight lander, Nasa’s latest foray to the red planet, has landed.

Cheers erupted Monday (Nov 26) at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, which operates the spacecraft, when InSight sent back acknowledgment of its safe arrival on Mars. That was the end of a journey of more than six months and 300 million miles.

As InSight descended and each milestone of the landing process was called out, “the hairs on the back of my neck would start rising a little bit higher, a little bit higher,” Mr Tom Hoffman, the project manager for the mission, said at a news conference after the landing.

“And then when we finally got the confirmation of touchdown, it was completely amazing. The whole room went crazy. My inner 4-year-old came out.”

In the months ahead, InSight will begin its study of the Martian underworld, listening for tremors — marsquakes — and collect data that will be pieced together in a map of the interior of the red planet and would help scientists understand how Mars and other rocky planets formed.

Those lessons could also shed light on Earth’s origins.

“We can basically use Mars as a time machine to go look back at what the Earth must have looked like a few tens of millions of years after it formed,” said Mr Bruce Banerdt, the principal investigator of the mission.

InSight set down at Elysium Planitia, near the Equator in the northern hemisphere. Mission scientists have described the region as resembling a parking lot or “Kansas without the corn.” Within minutes, the first photograph from InSight appeared on the screen, eliciting another round of cheers.

The image was partially obscured by dirt kicked up onto a protective but clear lens cover, but it was evident that the landscape was indeed flat. One rock could be seen in the foreground.

“I’m very very happy that it looks like we have an incredibly safe and boring-looking landing location,” Mr Hoffman said.

Because the mission is not interested in rocky terrain or pretty sunsets, planners wanted a flat place with sandy soil. “There’s one rock, so I’m going to have to talk to them a little bit,” Mr Hoffman joked.

The main scientific part of the mission will not begin for a few months. Once the mission’s managers have confirmed the health of the spacecraft, including its robotic arm, the arm will lift the spacecraft’s primary instruments off the main deck of the lander and place them on the Martian ground.

Ms Elizabeth Barrett, a science system engineer, likened the process to a claw game where one tries to pull out a prize without it falling. “But you’re doing it with a really, really valuable prize,” she said. “And you’re doing it blindfolded where you can only take occasional pictures. And then you’re doing it via remote control on another planet.”

That requires some additional care. “You need to make sure you actually have the grapple on the payload before you lift it up and it’s actually on the ground before you let it go,” Ms Barrett said.

InSight’s primary mission on the surface is to last nearly two years.

One simple thing Mr Banerdt hopes to learn: How thick is the crust of Mars?

He recalled a project he worked on as an intern in the 1970s where the thickness of Mars’ crust needed to be known. “We just had to fake it, because we had no idea,” he said.

InSight should finally provide the answer. “That’s one measurement I would like to go back to the old paper, plug it in to see how close I was,” Mr Banerdt said.

Other questions the mission aims to answer: How often does the ground shake with marsquakes? How big is Mars’ molten core? How much heat is flowing up from the decay of radioactive elements at the core?

To study these questions, InSight will use two main instruments: a dome-shape package containing seismometers and a heat probe that is to burrow about 16 feet down. Nasa has spent S$814 million (S$1.12 billion) on InSight. In addition, France and Germany invested US$180 million to build these main instruments.

The seismometers, which are designed to measure surface movements less than the width of a hydrogen atom, will produce what are essentially sonograms of the planet’s insides. In particular, scientists are looking to record at least 10 to 12 marsquakes over two years.

Temblors on Mars are not caused by plate tectonics, like on Earth. Instead they are generated when the planet’s crust cracks because of its interior’s cooling and shrinking. The seismometers could also detect other seismic vibrations from meteors hitting Mars.

InSight’s landing wasn’t Nasa’s only success Monday. The agency used the mission to test new technology.

Two identical spacecraft known as Mars Cube One, or MarCO for short, launched with InSight in May. MarCO A and B then separated from InSight’s cruise stage and have since been trailing behind it.

Hundreds of miniature satellites known as CubeSats have launched into orbit around Earth in recent years, but this is the first time that CubeSats have been sent on an interplanetary voyage.

The MarCO spacecraft relayed InSight’s telemetry to Earth flawlessly, enabling the immediate celebration. “This has been a fantastic day for spacecraft great and small,” said Mr Andrew Klesh, the chief engineer for the CubeSats. THE NEW YORK TIMES

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