Touchdown, NASA!

On Monday, Nov. 26, the agency’s “InSight” lander did exactly what was designed to do – landed – on the Mars surface.

InSight  had been on an almost seven-month, 300-million-mile journey from Earth, having launched from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base on May 5 of this year.

The lander touched down on a spot near Mars' equator: the western side of a flat, smooth expanse of lava called Elysium Planitia.

A signal affirming a completed landing sequence was sent at 11:52:59 a.m. PST (2:52:59 p.m. EST). See the reaction in the mission control room at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, below.

The landing signal was relayed to JPL thanks to NASA's two small experimental Mars Cube One  (MarCO) CubeSats, which launched on the same rocket as InSight and followed the lander to Mars.

After successfully carrying out a number of communications and in-flight navigation experiments, the twin MarCOs – the first CubeSats ever sent into deep space – were placed in position to receive transmissions during InSight's entry, descent, and landing.

What is the mission of InSight exactly?

Equipped with twin solar arrays that are each 7-feet wide, the lander will use advanced instruments to delve deep beneath the surface of Mars and examine the planet’s interior, gathering information about seismology, tectonic activity, and heat flow.

Using Mars as a kind of "time machine,” said principal investigator Bruce Banerdt, NASA researchers can use the planet’s interior data to learn about Earth’s origins and see how our own planet might have looked like tens of millions of years after it formed.

InSight carries a seismometer, or “SEIS” instrument, which maps out the interior structure of Mars and measures the seismic waves that have traveled through the planet after "Mars-quakes."

A “Heat Flow” and “Physical Properties” probe will penetrate 16 feet down into the surface, to take the temperature of Mars.

And like a kind of “Claw Game,” the instruments will have to be picked off of the lander and placed on the Mars surface.

Known as Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy, and Heat Transport — InSight for short — the lander has already begun collecting science data and setting InSight's instruments on the Martian ground.

The engineering team will deploy InSight's 5.9-foot-long robotic arm so that it can take images of the landscape. Weather sensors and magnetometer readings are also currently taking place from the Elysium Planitia landing site.

As the data comes in, InSight project manager Tom Hoffman spoke with Tech Briefs about the importance of digging deep in our knowledge of Mars.

Tech Briefs: How did you feel when the InSight lander landed on Mars?

Tom Hoffman, InSight Project Manager: I personally felt elation and relief simultaneously, both during the descent as we got through each step and even more so upon successful landing. The tension was palpable in the room, because the team was watching the Entry, Descent, and Landing of a spacecraft we all had a hand on in building. Knowing that the spacecraft was completely on its own during the Landing process, without any way for us to assist it, was nerve wracking for all of us.

Tech Briefs: How did the reaction in the room compare to previous landing missions?

Hoffman: Landing on Mars is one of the hardest endeavors we undertake in the space business, so when we were successful, the entire room simultaneously erupted with joy and a clear sense of accomplishment. Landing on Mars is never easy, and the excitement of the room upon indication of touchdown on Mars by InSight rivaled that of every other successful landing.

Tech Briefs: With the Insight spacecraft, what are you most excited to learn about?

Hoffman: Personally, I am excited to learn about the deep interior of Mars through the measurement of seismic waves with our SEIS instrument and the heat flux coming from the core of Mars using our Heat-flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3). These will provide information that we have never had before and help us understand how Mars evolved differently than the Earth and maybe why they are so different today.

However, I am most excited to uncover information about questions that we have not even thought to ask and discover completely new information about Mars. It usually happens that the most interesting findings are the ones that you were not even thinking about. For example, one aspect of InSight we don’t talk about much is that we have a weather station on the Lander which can measure temperature, wind, pressure, and the magnetic field. These sensors are there mainly to support the SEIS experiment, but will return weather data more regularly for a single point than any previous lander. Who knows what we may find from this data?

Tech Briefs: Did everything go according to plan with the landing?

Hoffman: The entire Landing went just about perfectly, and we were very relieved to land safely on Mars. The Landing team will be poring through the data that was taken during the landing to reconstruct every single step that the Lander took, to understand how to make the next landing just as successful. During the descent, there are dozens of critical activities that all have to work perfectly in unison and at the exact time for the spacecraft to land successfully.

Tech Briefs: What part of the landing process were you most concerned about?

Hoffman: The specific activity that had me the most concerned was the parachute inflation. The parachute is a soft good, which means, by its nature, it is not completely predictable. And on top of that, it gets deployed at Mach 1.7 (~850 MPH on Mars). So even though we did extensive testing and that testing was all successful, having the parachute work was not a guaranteed event.

Tech Briefs: What is the plan for the spacecraft over the next two years, and what needs to be done first?

Hoffman: Over the coming days and weeks, the Lander will go through several key activities before it begins the two-year science mission. First, the Lander will evaluate how well it is operating on Mars, and it will evaluate the area where it landed. On Earth, the team will decide where to place the SEIS and HP3 instruments, and then we will practice those operations in our testbed at JPL. Once we have determined the instrument placement locations, we will use the robotic arm on the Lander to place each of the three elements (SEIS, Wind and Thermal Shield (WTS), and HP3) onto the surface of Mars.

The first photograph taken by NASA's InSight lander on Nov. 26, 2018, after the spacecraft touched down on the Red Planet. (Image Credit: NASA)

This will be the first time we have ever robotically placed instruments onto the surface of another planet, so we will take our time to get this critical step right, with several pauses between each step in the process – this activity will take 2-3 months to complete. Once the instruments are placed, the SEIS will be calibrated and the HP3 will start its penetration phase, where it may hammer as deep as 16 feet into the Martian regolith.

Tech Briefs: What are your day-to-day responsibilities now, as they relate to the Mars mission?

Hoffman: As the InSight project manager, my main day-to-day role is to ensure that the team has all of the necessary resources to do their very challenging jobs. I monitor the activities of the team and the Lander, so I can assist the team whenever they need any guidance or help. I have an outstanding team, so most of the time I am not too busy, which is great!

What do you think about the InSight mission? Share your comments and questions below.