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NASA InSight sticks the landing after plunge to Mars surface

Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Monday, November 26, 2018, 4:25 PM - NASA's InSight lander is now safe on the surface of Mars, after a daredevil plunge through the planet's thin atmosphere. With the nail-biting part of the mission over, what comes next?

At 2:54 p.m. ET, on Monday, November 26, after over six months of travelling through space, NASA's Mars InSight lander touched down on the Red Planet, coming to rest on a wide, flat plain known as Elysium Planitia.

While the landing was no-doubt followed by an intense settling quiet on distant Mars, it was quite a different story here on Earth.

At NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Mission Control and the nearby von Karman Auditorium, the voices of engineers, scientists, media representatives and attendees from social media joined together in an eruption of cheers!

According to NASA, everything about the landing went perfectly, as planned, with the lander and the MarCO cubesats performing right on schedule.

Immediately after landing, InSight's very first act was to snap a picture of the landscape immediately in front of it. While it is a grainy image, partially blocked by the camera's dust cover, it serves as the first point of reference for the mission team, to bring it all together.

The very first image returned by NASA InSight, from Elysium Planitia, post-landing. Image snapped by InSight's Instrument Context Camera (ICC), located on the lander's belly. The dark speckles on in the image are dust particles stuck to the camera's dust cover. Beyond those, the dust cover's bolts are visible along the bottom edge, one of the lander's feet to the lower right, and a large-ish Martian rock is visible nearby. In the distance is the Mars horizon. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Now, after years of development, and months of tracking their charge through space, it was finally safe on the surface of Mars, ready to proceed with its groundbreaking science.

Keep Watching: NASA continues its live coverage of the InSight landing, with a press briefing at 5 p.m. ET (2 p.m. PT)


With InSight on Mars, what comes next?

While the lander is safe and set to work, there are a few steps it needs to go through before it can actually start collecting data and sending it back to Earth. Some are fairly minor, such as removing the dust covers from its cameras, so that it can take better pictures of its surroundings.

The second image taken by InSight, from its Instrument Deployment Camera, on the lander's arm, taken November 26, 2018. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

There are, however, a few major steps that InSight will take, going forward.

Step 1: Open its solar panels

During touchdown, its possible that InSight's landing jets kicked up a LOT of dust! Due to a global dust storm, which only recently abated, dust has been redistributed over nearly the entire surface of Mars. So, it's unknown exactly how much dust is on the surface where the lander just set down. It may have be relatively dust-free, due to the dust normally there being carried elsewhere, or more dust may have been deposited during the storm.

To ensure that InSight doesn't immediately have its solar panels covered in settling dust from the landing, it waits a total of 16 minutes before extending and unfolding its panels. That gives the dust enough time to clear, so that InSight can gather as much initial power as possible.

The mission team says that even if only one panel deploys, they can still perform the mission, but if neither deploy, for some reason, that is when the lander will run into trouble. Without power from the Sun, its battery will quickly run dry, and they will lose contact with InSight.

NASA will know that InSight has deployed its solar panels once the Mars Odyssey orbiter flies over the lander's location, and retrieves data from it, roughly five hours after the landing.

Update: According to NASA, along with the above image, taken by InSight's Instrument Deployment Camera, the lander also transmitted data via Odyssey that it has deployed its solar panels, and is collecting sunlight to charge its battery!

The InSight team can rest a little easier tonight now that we know the spacecraft solar arrays are deployed and recharging the batteries," said Tom Hoffman, InSight's project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "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."

Step 2: Transfer SEIS to the ground

While InSight will have its solar panels deployed very soon after landing, getting its instruments online and collecting data will take much longer.

SEIS, the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure, is InSight's 'marsquake' detector, and at this moment, it is currently resting on the deck of the lander, up off the ground. In order to do its job properly, however, SEIS has to be placed directly on the Martian surface.

Since this is InSight's primary mission, though, the team needs to proceed very carefully at this point.

It's projected that it will take them about two months to fully test InSight's systems and its actuator arm, before they send the commands for the transfer of SEIS from the lander deck to the ground. After that, it will follow up by picking up the Wind and Thermal Shield (WTS), a white dome with a chainmail and scalemail fringe on the bottom, which will be place over SEIS, to isolate it from the surrounding environment.

Step 3: Deploy the Heat Probe

This mission's other primary science experiment is the Heat Probe - a 'mole' that will dig its way deep under the surface, to give us a look at what the temperature profile inside the planet is like.

Like SEIS, though, this instrument is also currently stowed on the lander deck. So, once the InSight team is ready, they will set the Heat Probe down on the ground, likely after the seismic instrument is in position.


It will take months for InSight to get started on its primary work, and up to two years for the mission to produce solid science results about the interior of Mars, but that is the kind of mission that we've signed on to with this lander. It's job, now that it has arrived at Mars, is to sit quietly on the surface and just listen to the planet.

The mission is far from boring, however.

The most immediate results we'll get from InSight will be from its cameras - as it takes panoramic shots of the ground around it, using its belly camera, and selfies from its arm cameras - and very soon, we will begin seeing results from its continuous weather-monitoring station!

Stand by for more updates on this historic mission!


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