NASA’s InSight probe has landed successfully on Mars following a perilous seven-minute plunge to the planet’s surface.
Signals from the probe indicating that it’s solar panels were open and operational were received on Earth at approximately 5:30 PM PST. NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter also relayed two images of InSight’s landing site, a flat plane close to the planet’s equator named Elysium Planitia.
Opening the solar panels and powering up immediately was a necessity for the probe as it had to regulate its temperature on the planet’s icy cold surface.
“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 in Pasadena, California, which leads the mission. “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.”
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The Insight probe is meant to study Mars’s deep interior. This would make Mars the only planet apart from Earth whose interior has been examined by humans. InSight will execute three principal experiments in this regard.
The first involves a package of Franco-British seismometers which will sit on the planet’s surface, measuring its ‘pulse’ or seismic vibrations. These vibrations will reveal the location of layers of rock and what they are made of.
The second involves the German-made Heat Flow and Physical Properties Probe. This probe will burrow 16 feet under Mars’s surface, and measure the heat coming from the planet’s interior. This will help scientists determine whether the planet was made from the same material as the Earth and the moon.
The third experiment will involve precisely tracking the lander’s location in order to determine how much Mars’s north pole wobbles as it orbits the sun. This will help determine whether how much of the planet’s interior is liquid. Deputy project scientist Suzanne Smrekar used this analogy to explain the experiment: “If you take a raw egg and a cooked egg and you spin them, they wobble differently because of the distribution of liquid in the interior. And today we really don’t know if the core of Mars is liquid or solid, and how big that core is. InSight will give us this information.”
All this data will give scientists a new perspective about how a rocky planet is formed and how it evolves over time.
“The small details in how planets evolve are what we think make 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.” said InSight Chief Scientist Bruce Banerdt.