NASA spacecraft lands on Mars after six-month journey

An In Sight selfie with the Martian horizon in the background

An In Sight selfie with the Martian horizon in the background

Vid NASA's InSight lander today successfully fell through the atmosphere of Mars to touchdown in seemingly one piece on the planet's surface.

The satellites provided real-time updates of the spacecraft's supersonic descent through the reddish skies and also shot back a quick photo from the planet.

Confirmation came minutes later from a pair of tiny satellites that had been trailing InSight throughout the six-month, 300-million-mile journey.

The friction as Insight traveled through the atmosphere generated intense heat, but the spacecraft's heat shield allowed the lander to withstand temperatures up to 2,800 degrees Fahrenheit. NASA hasn't committed to a MarCO-like mission for its next Mars lander, the Mars 2020 rover, but Klesh said the success of MarCO has opened the door to that and other uses of smallsats in deep space.

It was NASA's ninth attempt to land at Mars since the 1976 Viking probes.

"Its new home is Elysium Planitia, a still, flat region where it's set to study seismic waves and heat deep below the surface of the Red Planet for a planned two-year mission", NASA tweeted. NASA's Curiosity rover, which arrived in 2012, is still on the move on Mars.

Catherine Johnson is a UBC planetary scientist who is the only Canadian involved in the latest NASA mission to Mars.

The InSight lander is aiming for a Monday afternoon touchdown on what scientists and engineers hope will be a flat plain.

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

The twin "Cubesats" tagging along for the flight to Mars represented the first deep-space use of a miniature satellite technology that space engineers see as a promising low-priced alternative to some larger, more complex vehicles. The cubesats, intended primarily as technology demonstrations, were created to provide a realtime relay of telemetry from InSight during landing, without which it would have been hours before controllers knew if the spacecraft had landed successfully. "Now we finally will explore inside Mars and deepen our understanding of our terrestrial neighbor as NASA prepares to send human explorers deeper into the solar system". "This image is really our farewell to InSight, our wish for good luck and a farewell for Mars itself as we continue on said Andrew Klesh, the chief engineer for the CubeSats. It's such a unsafe thing that there's always a fairly uncomfortably large chance that something could go wrong".

Phoning home: NASA had to wait several minutes before InSight phoned home to say it's okay.

This photo provided by NASA shows the first image acquired by the InSight Mars lander after it touched down on the surface of Mars Monday, Nov. 26, 2018.

After landing, InSight will unfurl its solar panels and robotic arm and study the entire planet from its parking spot.

InSight has no life-detecting capability, however.

"Every Mars landing is daunting, but now with InSight safely on the surface, we get to do a unique kind of science on Mars", JPL director Michael Watkins said. But InSight is expected to yield the first meaningful data on planetary seismic tremors beyond Earth.

InSight, a $1 billion global project, includes a German mechanical mole that will burrow down 16 feet (5 meters) to measure Mars' internal heat. This is no rock-collecting expedition. The oldest geological history of Earth has been erased by later processes, such as plate tectonics and erosion, which are less active on Mars.

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