PASADENA, California – NASA’s Mars lander InSight touched down safely on the surface of the Red Planet on Monday to begin its two-year mission as the first spacecraft designed to explore the deep interior of another world.
Engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) near Los Angeles said the successful landing was confirmed by signals relayed to Earth from one of two miniature satellites that were launched along with InSight, and flew past Mars when it arrived shortly before 3 p.m. EST.
Members of the mission control team burst into applause and cheered in relief as they received data showing that the spacecraft had survived its perilous descent to the Martian surface.
The landing capped a six-month journey of 301 million miles (548 million km) from Earth, following its launch from California in May.
Carrying instruments that are able to detect planetary heat and seismic rumblings never measured anywhere but Earth, the stationary lander streaked into the thin Martian atmosphere at 12,300 miles (19,795 km) per hour.
Its 77-mile descent was then slowed by atmospheric friction, and a giant parachute and retro rockets were ejected, bringing the three-legged spacecraft to a gentle landing six and a half minutes later. InSight came to rest as planned in the middle of a vast, barren plain called the Elysium Planitia, close to the planet’s equator.
InSight will spend 24 months – about one Martian year – recording seismic and temperature readings to unlock mysteries about how Mars was formed and will help explain the origins of the Earth and other rocky planets of the inner solar system.
The stationary probe is programmed to pause for 16 minutes for the dust to settle around its landing site, before disc-shaped solar panels will unfurl like wings and provide power to the spacecraft.
Minutes after the landing, JPL controllers received a fuzzy photograph of the probe’s new surroundings on Martian soil.
The 880-pound (360 kg) InSight – its name is short for Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport – marks the 21st US-launched Mars mission, dating back to the Mariner fly-bys of the 1960s. Nearly two dozen other Mars missions have been sent from other nations.