After incredible Mars touchdown, InSight sends back its first photos

27 Nov 2018

The NASA InSight team reacts after receiving confirmation that the spacecraft successfully touched down on the surface of Mars. Image: NASA/B Ingalls

Mars, there’s a new lander in town, and its name is InSight.

Unlike many other landers and rovers that have come before it, NASA’s InSight lander has safely touched down on the surface of Mars in spectacular fashion.

Reaching the Martian surface at approximately 8pm UTC last night (26 November), NASA’s mission control team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, erupted into cheers and applause when the good news arrived.

And so begins the two-year mission for the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) lander that will go where no lander has gone before, deep below the planet’s surface.

As the celebrations continued last night, NASA was eagerly awaiting the first photos to be sent from the surface by InSight. The speed at which the images were sent back was substantially faster than years gone by thanks to InSight’s two companions in orbit: Mars Cube One (MarCO) A and B.

These cubesats were launched on the same rocket as InSight and made history as the first cubesats to be sent into deep space. After successfully carrying out a number of communications and in-flight navigation experiments, the twin MarCOs were set in position to receive transmissions during InSight’s entry, descent and landing.

Then, InSight revealed the first two photos from the Red Planet – one with the lens cap on, and the other off.

‘A unique kind of science on Mars’

“We hit the Martian atmosphere at 19,800kph, and the whole sequence to touching down on the surface took only six-and-a-half minutes,” said InSight project manager Tom Hoffman. “During that short span of time, InSight had to autonomously perform dozens of operations and do them flawlessly – and, by all indications, that is exactly what our spacecraft did.”

Not wanting to just sit around, InSight’s mission begins immediately, starting with the collection of data and, in almost two days’ time, will deploy its 1.8-metre-long robotic arm to take more images of the landscape.

Until its mission finishes on 24 November 2020, InSight will measure a number of different Martian phenomena such as ‘marsquakes’, send a thermometer five metres down into the planet, and also measure the wobble of Mars’s north pole as the sun pushes and pulls it in its orbit, providing clues on the size and composition of Mars’s metallic core.

JPL director Michael Watkins said: “Every Mars landing is daunting but now, with InSight safely on the surface, we get to do a unique kind of science on Mars.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic