Touchdown on Mars: NASA's InSight lands to peer inside the Red Planet

By Mike Wall
November 28, 2018, 7:15:57 AM EST


Mars just welcomed a new robotic resident.

NASA's InSight lander touched down safely on the Martian surface today (Nov. 26), pulling off the first successful Red Planet landing since the Curiosity rover's arrival in August 2012 — on the seventh anniversary of Curiosity's launch, no less.

Signals confirming InSight's touchdown came down to Earth at 2:53 p.m. EST (1953 GMT), eliciting whoops of joy and relief from mission team members and NASA officials here at the agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which manages the InSight mission. A few minutes later, the team received confirmation from the lander that it's functioning after the landing.

"It was intense, and you could feel the emotion," said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who was in the control room here at JPL during the landing. "It was very, very quiet when it was time to be quiet and of course very celebratory with every little new piece of information that was received. It's very different being here than watching it on TV, by far, I can tell you that for sure now that I've experienced both."

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Kris Bruvold, left, and Sandy Krasner react after receiving confirmation that the Mars InSight lander successfully touched down on the surface of MarsCredit: Bill Ingalls/NASA


But the tension didn't completely dissipate until 8:30 p.m. EST (0130 GMT on Nov. 27), when mission team members learned that InSight successfully deployed its solar panels. Without those arrays extended, the lander could not survive, let alone probe the Red Planet's interior like never before — the main goal of the $850 million InSight mission.

The agonizing delay was unavoidable; NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter wasn't in position to relay the deployment confirmation to mission control until about 5.5 hours after touchdown, agency officials said.

If the arrays do unfurl as planned, InSight will join a relatively select club. Less than 40 percent of all Mars missions over the decades have successfully arrived at their destination, be that an orbital path around the planet or its dusty red surface.

A long road to Mars

InSight launched on May 5 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, in the first-ever liftoff of an interplanetary mission from the U.S. West Coast. (Florida's Space Coast is the traditional jumping-off point for such far-flung voyagers.)

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A diagram of NASA's InSight Mars lander and its science instruments to look inside the Red Planet.Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech - Adrian Mann/Tobias Roetsch/Future Plc


InSight shared its Atlas V rocket ride with two briefcase-size cubesats called MarCO-A and MarCO-B, which have been making their own way to Mars over the past 6.5 months. The MarCO duo (whose name is short for "Mars Cube One") have been embarked on an $18 million demonstration mission, which seeks to show that tiny spacecraft can explore deep space.

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