Nasa's latest Mars craft nears landing for unprecedented seismic mission

Nasa's latest Mars craft nears landing for unprecedented seismic mission

Flight controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, leaped out of their chairs, screaming, dancing and hugging, upon learning that InSight had arrived on Mars, the graveyard for a multitude of previous missions.

Because of the distance between Earth and Mars, it took eight minutes for confirmation to arrive, relayed by a pair of tiny satellites that had been trailing InSight throughout the six-month, 300-million-mile (482-million-kilometer) journey.

The dark flecks in the image that resemble nothing so much as bacteria on a microscope slide are dust and debris kicked up by the lander's engines, clinging to the semi-transparent cover. Better photos are expected in the days ahead. But every landing on Mars is risky and we were waiting nervously at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to get the first signal back from the successful landing.

NASA last landed on Mars in 2012 with the Curiosity rover.

"What a relief", said JPL's chief engineer, Rob Manning. "This team of really mostly part-timers on the project has proven the technology we were trying to demonstrate with this mission, being able to support a large craft like InSight", he said. "Sometimes things work out in your favor".

"Today, we successfully landed on Mars for the eighth time in human history", NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said. The self-hammering mole will burrow 16 feet (5 metres) down to measure the planet's internal heat, while the seismometer listens for possible quakes. Another will use the planet's poles to study its core, and one will hunt for "Marsquakes".

NASA said the cube-satellites "technology demonstration" worked as planned. This spot is open, flat safe and boring, which is what the scientists want for a stationary two-year mission.

The InSight lander aimed for a touchdown Monday afternoon, as anxiety built among those involved in the $1 billion global effort.

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The US, however, has pulled off seven successful Mars landings in the past four decades, not counting InSight, with only one failed touchdown.

The robotic geologist - created to explore Mars' mysterious insides - must go from 12,300 miles per hour (19,800 kph) to zero in six minutes flat as it pierces the Martian atmosphere, pops out a parachute, fires its descent engines and lands on three legs. The danger was that the spacecraft could burn up in the atmosphere or bounce off it. In less time than it takes to hard-boil an egg, InSight slowed from 12,300 miles per hour to 5 miles per hour before it gently landed on the surface of Mars, according to NASA.

The vehicle appeared to be in good shape, according to the first communications received from the Martian surface. All but one of the previous United States touchdowns were successful.

Watch parties for NASA's live television coverage of the event were held at museums, libraries and other public venues around the world, including Times Square, where a small crowd of 40 or 50 people braved pouring rain to witness the broadcast on a giant TV screen affixed to a wall of the Nasdaq building.

On Monday afternoon, following "seven minutes of terror", the craft reached its final destination - Elysium Planitia, a flat plain near the Red Planet's equator - where it will now spend the next two years conducting scientific research focused on the planet's interior.

A hard landing: InSight set down on terra firma just before 3 p.m.

"It's going to be awesome". "We are solar powered, so getting the arrays out and operating is a big deal", Hoffman said.

The goal is to map the inside of Mars in three dimensions, "so we understand the inside of Mars as well as we have come to understand the outside of Mars", Banerdt told reporters. While Earth is active seismically, Mars "decided to rest on its laurels" after it formed, he said.

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