Martian touchdown fires up wild joy on Earth

Top News | AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE 28 Nov 2018

Cheers and applause erupted at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena as a waist-high unmanned lander called InSight touched down on Mars, capping a nearly seven-year journey from design to launch to landing.

The dramatic arrival of the US$993 million (HK$7.74 billion) craft - designed to listen for quakes and tremors as a way to unveil the Red Planet's inner mysteries, how it formed billions of years ago and, by extension, how other rocky planets like Earth took shape - marked the eighth successful landing on Mars by NASA.

"Touchdown confirmed," a mission control operator intoned. Then pent-up excitement surged through the facility and scientists leaped from their seats to embrace after Insight's 485-million-kilometer flight that took almost seven months.

"It was intense," NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine agreed, adding: "The day is coming when we land humans on Mars."

The goal is to achieve that by the mid-2030s.

Insight was in good shape, the first communications from Mars suggested. But as expected dust kicked up during the landing obscured the first picture InSight sent.

And in a final crucial phase, InSight signaled to Earth that its solar panels - twin solar arrays 2.2 meters in width - had opened and were collecting sunlight.

"The InSight team can rest a little easier now we know the arrays are deployed and recharging the batteries," said project manager Tom Hoffman.

And a French partner was celebrating too.

"There are no rocks in front of the lander," said Philippe Lognonne of the Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales, which made the instrument for sensing quakes.

The craft was NASA's first to touch down on Earth's neighboring planet since the Curiosity rover in 2012.

More than half of 43 attempts to reach Mars with rovers, orbiters and probes by various nations have failed. NASA is the only space agency to have made it, investing in robotic missions to prepare for the first human explorers.

The nail-biting entry, descent and landing phase lasted 13 minutes in all. But the sequence also involved "six and a half minutes of terror," the team at Pasadena said.

Speeding at 19,800kph, the heat-shielded spacecraft encountered scorching friction upon entering Mars' atmosphere. The shield soared to a temperature of about 1,500 degrees Celsius before it was discarded, the three landing legs deployed and the parachute popped out, easing InSight to Mars' surface.

InSight contains key instruments contributed by several European space agencies besides France's CNES.

The German Aerospace Center provided a mole that can burrow five meters - farther than any instrument before - to measure heat flow. Spain's Centro de Astrobiologia made the wind sensors, and three of InSight's seismic instruments were designed and built in Britain.

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