NASA’s latest interplanetary probe has sent its first selfie from the barren surface of Mars, after it successfully reached the planet following a seven month trip through space.
The US space agency released a photograph taken by its InSight spacecraft shortly after it landed, showing part of the probe and the Martian surface in the distance.
A Nasa satellite orbiting the red planet relayed images of the $1 billion (£0.78 billion) spacecraft from its landing site, known as Elysium Planitia, back to Earth at 8:30pm EST (1:30am GMT) on Monday.
The successful transfer confirmed that InSight’s solar panelTom Hoffman, InSight’s project manager at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said: ‘The InSight team can rest a little easier tonight now that we know the spacecraft solar arrays are deployed and recharging the batteries.s, known as solar arrays, have now successfully opened, meaning it is able to collect sunlight and recharge its batteries each day.
‘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.’
Using InSight’s robotic arm, which has a camera attached, the mission team will be able to take more photographs in the coming days, Nasa said.
This will help engineers assess where to install the spacecraft’s scientific instruments, which will begin sending back data to Earth within two to three months.
The InSight lander touched down on Mars just before 3pm EST (8pm GMT) on Monday, surviving the so-called ‘seven minutes of terror’, a tricky landing phase for the robotic probe.
It was travelling at 13,200 mph (21,200 kph) when it entered the planet’s thin atmosphere which provides little friction to slow down.
American space agency Nasa’s two-year mission aims to shine new light on how the Red Planet was formed and its deep structure, by mapping its core, crust and mantle.
InSight arrived on Mars’s Elysium Planitia area north of its equator, described as an ideal spot for its flat, rockless surface.
It was NASA’s eighth successful landing at Mars since the 1976 Viking probes, and the first in six years. NASA’s Curiosity rover, which arrived in 2012, is still on the move on Mars.
Only 40 per cent of missions to the planet have succeeded and all have been US-led.
This image shows some of the instruments loaded onto NASA’s InSight lander, which touched down on the red planet on Monday
Minutes after touching down on Mars, NASA’s InSight spacecraft sent back a ‘nice and dirty’ snapshot of the red planet.
The photo revealed a mostly smooth and sandy terrain around the spacecraft with only one sizable rock visible.
‘I’m very, very happy that it looks like we have an incredibly safe and boring landing location,’ project manager Tom Hoffman said after Monday’s touchdown. ‘That’s exactly what we were going for.’
A better image came hours later and more are expected in the days ahead, after the dust covers come off the lander’s cameras.
The spacecraft arrived at Mars after a perilous, supersonic plunge through its red skies that took just six minutes.
Touchdown confirmed!’ a flight controller called out just before 3:00 pm EST (8:00pm GMT), setting off jubilation among scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, who had waited in white-knuckle suspense for word to reach across 100 million miles (160 million kilometres) of space.
Because of the distance between Earth and Mars, it took eight minutes for confirmation to arrive, relayed by a pair of tiny satellites named Wall-E and Eva that had been trailing InSight throughout the six-month, 300-million-mile (482-million-kilometer) journey.
‘Flawless,’ declared JPL’s chief engineer, Rob Manning. ‘Sometimes things work out in your favor.’
InSight, a $1 billion (£0.78 billion) international project, includes a German mechanical mole that will burrow down 16 feet (5 meters) to measure Mars’ internal heat.
INSIGHT’S THREE KEY INSTRUMENTS
Three key instruments will allow the InSight lander to ‘take the pulse’ of the red planet:
Seismometer: The InSight lander carries a seismometer, SEIS, that listens to the pulse of Mars.
The seismometer records the waves traveling through the interior structure of a planet.
Studying seismic waves tells us what might be creating the waves.
On Mars, scientists suspect that the culprits may be marsquakes, or meteorites striking the surface.
Heat probe: InSight’s heat flow probe, HP3, burrows deeper than any other scoops, drills or probes on Mars before it.
It will investigate how much heat is still flowing out of Mars.
Radio antennas: Like Earth, Mars wobbles a little as it rotates around its axis.
To study this, two radio antennas, part of the RISE instrument, track the location of the lander very precisely.
This helps scientists test the planet’s reflexes and tells them how the deep interior structure affects the planet’s motion around the Sun.
The lander also has a French seismometer for measuring quakes, if they exist on our smaller, geologically calmer neighbour as well as three UK-made seismometer instruments.
Another experiment will calculate Mars’ wobble to reveal the makeup of the planet’s core.
Late Monday, NASA reported the spacecraft’s vital solar arrays were open and recharging its batteries.
Over the next few ‘sols’ – or Martian days of 24 hours, 39½ minutes – flight controllers will assess the health of InSight’s all-important robot arm and its science instruments.
It will take months to set up and fine-tune the instruments, and lead scientist Bruce Banerdt said he doesn’t expect to start getting a stream of solid data until late next spring.
Banerdt called InSight’s first snapshot of the surface the first bit of science, albeit ‘nice and dirty.’ He said the image would be cleaned and the black specks would disappear.
That photo came from a camera low on the lander. Late Monday, NASA released a clean photo taken by a higher camera that showed part of the lander and the landscape.
The 800-pound (360-kilogram) InSight is stationary and will operate from the same spot for the next two years, the duration of a Martian year.
‘In the coming months and years even, history books will be rewritten about the interior of Mars,’ said JPL’s director, Michael Watkins.
NASA went with its old, straightforward approach this time, using a parachute and braking engines to get InSight’s speed from 12,300 mph (19,800 kph) when it pierced the Martian atmosphere, about 77 miles (114 kilometers) up, to 5 mph (8kph) at touchdown.
The danger was that the spacecraft could burn up in the atmosphere or bounce off it.
Many Mars-bound spacecraft launched by the US, Russia and other countries have been lost or destroyed over the years, with a success rate of just 40 per cent, not counting InSight.
The three-legged InSight settled on the western side of Elysium Planitia, the plain that NASA was aiming for.
Museums, planetariums and libraries across the US held viewing parties to watch the events unfold at JPL.
NASA TV coverage was also shown on the giant screen in New York’s Times Square, where crowds huddled under umbrellas in the rain.
‘What an amazing day for our country,’ said Jim Bridenstine, presiding over his first Mars landing as NASA’s boss.
Mars’ well-preserved interior provides a snapshot of what Earth may have looked like following its formation 4.5 billion years ago, according to Banerdt.
While Earth is active seismically, Mars ‘decided to rest on its laurels’ after it formed, he said.
By examining and mapping the interior of Mars, scientists hope to learn why the rocky planets in our solar system turned out so different and why Earth became a haven for life.
Still, there are no life detectors aboard InSight. NASA’s next mission, the Mars 2020 rover, will prowl for rocks that might contain evidence of ancient life.
The question of whether life ever existed in Mars’ wet, watery past is what keeps driving NASA back to the fourth rock from the sun.
After InSight landed, the two experimental satellites zoomed past Mars, their main job done. One took one last photo of the red planet that the satellites’ chief engineer, Andy Klesh, titled ‘farewell to InSight … farewell to Mars.’
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