NASA scientists were over the moon after landing another spacecraft on Mars Monday — which beamed its first, dust-covered image 100 million miles back to Earth just minutes later.
This illustration shows a simulated view of NASA’s InSight lander descending on its parachute toward the surface of Mars.
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Flight controllers at the space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California cheered, hugged and exchanged high-fives as Mission Control announced the InSight lander had touched down just before 3 p.m. Eastern time.
“Flawless,” JPL’s chief engineer, Rob Manning, said after the landing. “This is what we really hoped and imagined in our mind’s eye. Sometimes things work out in your favor.”
This is NASA’s eighth successful Mars landing, but it’s still an astronomically difficult feat, known to scientists as the “seven minutes of terror.”
After its six-month journey, the 800-pound craft had to go from 12,300 mph to zero in just seven minutes once it penetrated the Martian atmosphere using a supersonic parachute and descent engines — and then touch down on three legs.
“Landing on Mars is one of the hardest single jobs that people have to do in planetary exploration,” InSight’s lead scientist, Bruce Banerdt, said.
The nail-biting approach was punctuated by bursts of applause from the scientists, as InSight — short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport — hit each milestone.
Both President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence were watching and phoned afterwards with their congratulations, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said. “What an amazing day for our country,” Bridenstine said.
If all goes to plan, the $1-billion international mission will see InSight spend the next two years exploring Mars’ interior in the hope of determining how the planet was shaped billions of years ago.
The lander has a robotic arm that it will use to place a robot “mole” and seismometer on the ground.
The mole, provided by France, will dig 16 feet into the planet to measure its internal heat, while the seismometer, from Germany, will listen for quakes.
“In the coming months and years even, the history books will be rewritten about the interior of Mars,” JPL Director Michael Watkins said at a press conference after the landing.
The first image from InSight is covered in black dots because the camera’s dust cover is still on — but future shots will be much clearer, scientists said.
“This image is a very good example of why you put a dust cover on a camera when going to Mars,” Banerdt quipped.