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NASA’s InSight spacecraft landed on ‘a Large Sandbox’ Slightly Tilted at 4 Degrees

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Scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena have many reasons to celebrate with the successful landing of the InSight on the Martian surface. InSight blasted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on May 5 and will operate on the surface for one Martian year, plus 40 Martian days, or sols – the equivalent of nearly two Earth years. With the mission objective to study the deep interior of Mars and to shed light on the birth and geography of the celestial body with rocky surfaces like that of Earth and moon, it is the next huge step toward studying the Martian land and uncovering the mysteries of the cosmos.

With the landing a huge success, the next immediate step for the mission team is to make sure that the landing site and its immediate surrounding support favorable conditions for the InSight to deploy its scientific instruments to study Martian habitat. For this, a determining a perfect landing site is of utmost importance.

There are no landing pads or runways on Mars, so coming down in an area that is basically a large sandbox without any large rocks should make instrument deployment easier and provide a great place for our mole to start burrowing. – Tom Hoffman, InSight Project Manager

Once the InSight landed down safely on the Martian terrain on November 26, the team is now busy studying the spacecraft’s landing site, a lava plain named Elysium Planitia. Martian terrain is covered with craters and high mountains that might pose a problem for the vehicle to move about in the dusty surface. For this, They have maneuvered the vehicle to sit in shallow dust and sand covered crater known as a “hollow”, while tilting the vehicle at a slight angle of about 4 degrees to help carry out scientific experiments, which can operate at a surface with an inclination of up to 15 degrees.

The success of such delicate missions depends mostly on the terrain’s rockiness and slope grade. This isn’t just crucial for landing the spacecraft safely, but the deployment of its instruments and in this case, InSight’s ability to deploy its heat flow probe, tagged as “the mole” depends entirely on the nature of the terrain. On its mission on Mars, InSight would deploy scientific instruments – HP3 and ultra-sensitive seismometer, known as SEIS among many others to study the Martian habitat.

The science team had been hoping to land in a sandy area with few rocks since we chose the landing site, so we couldn’t be happie. – Tom Hoffman of JPL, InSight project manager

A preliminary observation of the photographs taken of the landing area so far suggests that the surrounding area of the spacecraft is thinly populated with Martian rocks. It is a good thing though, as landing on a steep slope in the wrong direction could pose problems in deploying its solar arrays that power the spacecraft.

With images streaming in already, the InSight team is expecting to get Higher resolution images over the next few days, after InSight deploys it’s the clear-plastic dust covers that kept the optics of the spacecraft’s two cameras safe during landing.

We are looking forward to higher-definition pictures to confirm this preliminary assessment. If these few images – with resolution-reducing dust covers on – are accurate, it bodes well for both instrument deployment and the mole penetration of our subsurface heat-flow experiment. – JPL’s Bruce Banerdt, principal investigator of InSight

Another mission success worth celebrating is that the solar-powered InSight generated more power than any of its predecessor vehicle that has landed on the red planet.

It is great to get our first ‘off-world record’ on our very first full day on Mars. But even better than the achievement of generating more electricity than any mission before us is what it represents for performing our upcoming engineering tasks. The 4,588 watt-hours we produced during sol 1 means we currently have more than enough juice to perform these tasks and move forward with our science mission. – Hoffman

Many countries have participated and contributed towards this mission- France’s Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES) and the German Aerospace Center (DLR). The SEIS instrument was provided by the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris (IPGP) and CNES. Contributions also poured in from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Germany, the Swiss Institute of Technology (ETH) in Switzerland, Imperial College and Oxford University in the United Kingdom, and JPL.

The wind sensors were supplied by DLR provided by Spain’s Centro de Astrobiología (CAB) and the HP3 was contributed by DLR and Space Research Center (CBK) of the Polish Academy of Sciences and Astronika in Poland.


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