NASA’s high success rates when it comes to Martian exploration missions might misconstrue just how hard it is to land on the Red Planet. In fact, of the 56 or so total missions mankind has launched toward Mars, thirty of them have been characterized as “partial failures” or worse. Between the United States, Russia, and the European Space Agency, the U.S. has secured the clear lead in Mars missions — with a higher success rate than either competitor by a wide margin.
But if you think that history of success has led to a casual atmosphere at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, during InSight’s landing on Mars earlier this week, you’d be sorely mistaken. The pressure was on as the small-car-sized lander descended through the Martian atmosphere, which at only about 1% the density of Earth’s offers very little in the way of friction to slow the spacecraft’s descent. In the span of just about five minutes, InSight went from traveling at a speed of about 12,300 miles per hour to just 5, as its legs extended and it gracefully touched down.
After waiting through the “seven minutes of terror” to find out if their spacecraft survived the descent, a signal confirming InSight’s success released an onslaught of celebratory cheers (and even a few complicated secret handshakes) at JPL.
“Today, we successfully landed on Mars for the eighth time in human history,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “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. 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. The best of NASA is yet to come, and it is coming soon.”
Soon after arriving on Mars, InSight sent back its first color photograph — showing the tell-tale Martian soil through a dirty lens.
The lander was accompanied on its long trip by two small cube-sats, the first of their kind to make a trip through deep space. These two small satellites will orbit Mars and serve as signal relays for InSight’s transmissions, establishing what could be a new norm for deep space communications.
“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 JPL director Michael Watkins. “The experimental MarCO CubeSats have also opened a new door to smaller planetary spacecraft. 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.”
Five hours later, NASA was able to confirm that the solar arrays, each measuring about seven feet long, had properly deployed and were functioning. InSight, now ready to begin work, relayed another photo at that point — this time, a bit clearer:
Now that the traveling part is over, InSight can begin work learning about the Martian interior — uncovering secrets about the formation of Mars that scientists believe will shed light on the formation of all rocky bodies in space — including the one we call home.
“This seems like the climax,” said InSight principal investigator Bruce Banerdt, “But it’s only a beginning.”