After seven months spent travelling to the red planet, NASA's InSight mission successfully navigated the descent to the surface of Mars, prompting wild celebrations at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

By Daniel Herborn


Posted on November 27, 2018

The landing was broadcast on the Nasdaq Stock Market tower in New York’s Times Square and was televised internationally.

“This never gets old,” said Chief Engineer Rob Manning. “What a relief. Fabulous, fabulous.”

A long journey and tricky landing

It marked the successful end of a 458 million km (300 million miles) journey from the Vandenberg Air Force Base Space Launch Complex in California to the Elysium Planitia, a plain close to the Red Planet’s equator.

The final phase was nerve-wracking for NASA scientists as it involved the robot entering the Martian atmosphere at 19,800 km/hour (12,300 miles/hour) and having to autonomously shed its heat shield and deploy a parachute to ensure the landing went smoothly.

“The best of NASA is yet to come”

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said the InSight touching down marked only the eighth Mars landing in history.

He said the robotic lander will study the interior of Mars and provide information that promises to be immensely valuable for future missions to both Mars and the Earth’s Moon. It is the first mission primarily interested in the interior of 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,” he said.

“The best of NASA is yet to come, and it is coming soon.”

Seconds after InSight successfully landed, Bridenstine received a congratulatory phone call from Vice-President Mike Pence.

Pence is Chairman of the National Space Council and has been instrumental in the establishment of the new ‘Space Force’ program.

What will InSight do during its time on Mars?

Just 16 minutes after landing, the robot began to generate power through solar panels to operate its systems.

Once powered up, it will employ seismometers on the surface of the planet to detect vibrations which will give scientists a fuller picture of the underground rock layers and their composition. The structure of Mars will help scientists understand the beginnings of our solar system some 4.5 billion years ago.

The mission’s Chief Scientists Bruce Banerdt said monitoring such details was of immense scientific value. “The small details in how planets evolve are what we think makes the difference between a place like Earth where you can go on vacation and get a tan, and a place like Venus where you’ll burn in seconds or a place like Mars where you’ll freeze to death.”

InSight will undertake exploratory drilling and take photos on Mars

Another novel aspect of the mission is its use of cube-shaped satellites. InSight was followed by two of the mini-satellites as it travelled to Mars.

Only the size of a suitcase, the satellites (known as MarCO) are the first vessels of their type to travel through deep space. They transmitted information about InSight’s progress back to Earth. Jet Propulsion Laboratory Director Michael Watkins said the MarCO CubeSats have “opened a new door to smaller planetary spacecraft”.

InSight is equipped to take photos of its new surroundings. The first photo it sent back to the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (seen in the header image) still had the lens cover on. It is expected to clean its lens and produce clearer photos in the coming days.

It will also insert heat probes or ‘moles’ up to 5 metres underground to measure the temperature as well as subterranean activity.

InSight will continue working on Mars for one Martian year and 40 Martian days, or until 24 November 2020.

Header image credit: NASA/JPL-CalTech