Spaceflight Insider

JPL’s Lucky Nuts work! InSight lander safely touches down on Mars

NASA mission managers successfully landed the InSight lander on Mars at the Elysium Planitia region at 3 p.m. ET (noon Pacific / 19:00 GMT) today, Monday, Nov. 26. Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

NASA mission managers successfully landed the InSight lander on Mars at the Elysium Planitia region at 3 p.m. ET (noon Pacific / 19:00 GMT) today, Monday, Nov. 26. Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

After traveling some 33.9 million miles (54.6 million kilometers), NASA’s Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) robotic lander safely touched down on the surface of Mars at the Elysium Planitia region at 2:52 p.m. EST (11:52 a.m. PST / 19:53 GMT) today, Monday, Nov. 26.

As has been the case with every mission to touch down on the surface of the Red Planet, mission managers back on Earth were forced to endure the stressful periods of launch, the vehicle’s transit from Earth to Mars and what has come to be called “the seven minutes of terror.” While members of the general public might not know what this means – those who plan, build and operate these spacecraft do. It’s the time when the landers and rovers plunge through Mars’ thin atmosphere (which is roughly 1 percent that of Earth).

“There’s a reason engineers call landing on Mars ‘seven minutes of terror,'” said Rob Grover, InSight‘s entry, descent and landing (EDL) lead. “We can’t joystick the landing, so we have to rely on the commands we pre-program into the spacecraft. We’ve spent years testing our plans, learning from other Mars landings and studying all the conditions Mars can throw at us. And we’re going to stay vigilant till InSight settles into its home in the Elysium Planitia region.”

A tradition that JPL has had since the Ranger 7 mission in 1964 has had peanuts on hand for good luck. With yet another win under NASA’s belt – it appears eating the snack did the trick.

NASA Chief Scientist Jim Green provides attendees of a social media event held at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California with an overview of the InSight lander mission. Photo Credit: Bill Ingalls / NASA

NASA Chief Scientist Jim Green provides attendees of a social media event held at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California with an overview of the InSight lander mission. Photo Credit: Bill Ingalls / NASA

This lack of atmosphere means that InSight had less to work with in terms of friction slowing it down as it descended. To increase InSight‘s chances of success, the spacecraft was designed to be durable and able to land even in the middle of a Martian sandstorm, something that might have been useful if the recent Martian sandstorm hadn’t dissipated a few months earlier.

InSight handled this part of her mission with no issues. In an interesting choice of words, NASA chose to phrase the chances of successfully planting a robot on the surface of Mars as “Landing on Mars is Hard.” However difficult, as the minutes ticket by, the milestones listed below were checked off one by one (timeline provided by NASA):

  • 11:40 a.m. PST (2:40 p.m. EST) — Separation from the cruise stage that carried the mission to Mars
  • 11:41 a.m. PST (2:41 p.m. EST) — Turn to orient the spacecraft properly for atmospheric entry
  • 11:47 a.m. PST (2:47 p.m. EST) — Atmospheric entry at about 12,300 mph (19,800 kph), beginning the entry, descent and landing phase
  • 11:49 a.m. PST (2:49 p.m. EST) — Peak heating of the protective heat shield reaches about 2,700°F (about 1,500°C)
  • 15 seconds later — Peak deceleration, with the intense heating causing possible temporary dropouts in radio signals
  • 11:51 a.m. PST (2:51 p.m. EST) — Parachute deployment
  • 15 seconds later — Separation from the heat shield
  • 10 seconds later — Deployment of the lander’s three legs
  • 11:52 a.m. PST (2:52 p.m. EST) — Activation of the radar that will sense the distance to the ground
  • 11:53 a.m. PST (2:53 p.m. EST) — First acquisition of the radar signal
  • 20 seconds later — Separation from the back shell and parachute
  • 0.5 second later — The retrorockets, or descent engines, begin firing
  • 2.5 seconds later — Start of the “gravity turn” to get the lander into the proper orientation for landing
  • 22 seconds later — InSight begins slowing to a constant velocity (from 17 mph to a constant 5 mph, or from 27 kph to 8 kph) for its soft landing
  • 11:54 a.m. PST (2:54 p.m. EST) — Expected touchdown on the surface of Mars
  • 12:01 p.m. PST (3:01 p.m. EST) — “Beep” from InSight’s X-band radio directly back to Earth, indicating InSight is alive and functioning on the surface of Mars
  • No earlier than 12:04 p.m. PST (3:04 p.m. EST), but possibly the next day — First image from InSight on the surface of Mars
  • No earlier than 5:35 p.m. PST (8:35 p.m. EST) — Confirmation from InSight via NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter that InSight’s solar arrays have deployed

What those with only a passing knowledge of the history of Martian exploration might not be aware of is that only 40 percent of missions sent to either orbit or land on the surface of the frozen world have met with success (that is from all space agencies, not just NASA).

The InSight lander is based off of technology utilized during NASA's successful 2008 Phoenix mission. Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

The InSight lander is based off of technology utilized during NASA’s successful 2008 Phoenix mission. Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

In terms of landing rovers and landers on the surface of Mars and having them beam data back to Earth – only NASA has successfully achieved this feat.

InSight was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base‘s Space Launch Complex 3 East (SLC-3E) in California atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V 401 (AV-078) rocket on May 5, 2018. The flight marked the first time that a planetary exploration mission got its start from California. The company’s representatives were thrilled to see that the venerable Atlas V was yet again an important part of one NASA’s exploration of the solar system.

“ULA is proud to be a key part of this mission to explore our universe. InSight will unlock possibilities in space that will benefit all of humankind.” Tony Taliancich, ULA’s director and general manager of Launch Operations told SpaceFlight Insider.

The mission’s “firsts” don’t end with the launch site. InSight has been tasked with peering deep into Mars’ interior, something no other vehicle to touch down on the Red Planet’s surface before has done. While this element of the mission can be considered new territory, other aspects are based on far more familiar ground.

InSight is based off of 2008’s Mars Phoenix Lander, which itself was produced after the failed 1999 Mars Polar Lander mission. Phoenix successfully completed its mission in November 2008. NASA is now hoping InSight will build upon the success demonstrated by Phoenix‘s flight-proven hardware. Both Phoenix and InSight were built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems. Whereas Phoenix was part of NASA’s Mars Scout Program, InSight was flown as part of the agency’s Discovery Program.

InSight is not solely a NASA mission, as European organizations provided the following support:

  • France’s Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES) and the German Aerospace Center (DLR) provided support.
  • CNES provided the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) instrument.
  • DLR provided the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) instrument.
  • Spain’s Centro de Astrobiología (CAB) supplied the wind sensors.
During 1964's Ranger 7 mission (which took place from July 28-31 of that year), NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory established a new tradition - lucky peanuts. With another successful landing under their belt, the nuts will likely be making appearances during future events. Photo Credit: Bill Ingalls / NASA

During 1964’s Ranger 7 mission (which took place from July 28-31 of that year), NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory established a new tradition – lucky peanuts. With another successful landing under their belt, the nuts will likely be making appearances during future events. Photo Credit: Bill Ingalls / NASA

By using its suite of instruments it is hoped that InSight can provide scientists back on Earth with a greater understanding of how terrestrial, rocky, worlds like our own were formed.

Various observatories on Earth and in space, including two Mars orbiters, tracked InSight‘s arrival and landing, providing the mission team with crucial data. Two radio telescopes, the National Science Foundation‘s (NSF) Green Bank Observatory (GBO)in Green Bank, West Virginia, and the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Effelsburg, Germany, tracked radio signals sent by InSight during its crucial entry, descent, and landing (EDL).

Photo Credit: Derek Richardson / SpaceFlight Insider

The InSight lander being prepared for flight. Photo Credit: Derek Richardson / SpaceFlight Insider

Two tiny Cubesats trailing InSight, known as MarCOs, transmitted data on InSight‘s EDL, including an actual image of the spacecraft’s touchdown on the Martian surface.

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), which has been circling the Red Planet since 2006, collected data during InSight‘s descent to the Martian surface in a manner much like an airplane’s black box records its flight.

Mars Odyssey, which has been orbiting the Red Planet since 2001, tracked InSight during its entire entry, descent, and landing, capturing several images of the event. It also confirmed the successful deployment of the spacecrafts’s solar arrays.

InSight itself returned two signals upon landing. The first was a tone beacon sent immediately upon touchdown, detected by the two ground-based radio telescopes monitoring the spacecraft. The second, sent several minutes later, was a more powerful transmission from InSight‘s X-band antenna with information confirming the spacecraft is healthy and functioning. That signal was picked up by both the radio telescopes and by NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN).

With one of the most tense phases of the mission now complete, the head of NASA reiterated InSight’s objectives while adding a reminder of what the agency might one-day achieve.

“Today, we successfully landed on Mars for the eighth time in human history,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “InSight will study the interior of Mars, and will teach us valuable science as we prepare to send astronauts to the Moon and later to Mars. This accomplishment represents the ingenuity of America and our international partners and it serves as a testament to the dedication and perseverance of our team. The best of NASA is yet to come, and it is coming soon.”

Tom Hoffman, InSight Project Manager, NASA JPL reacts to the first image to be seen from the Mars InSight lander shortly after confirmation of a successful touch down on the surface of Mars, Monday, Nov. 26, 2018 inside the Mission Support Area at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Photo & Caption Credit: Bill Ingalls / NASA

Tom Hoffman, InSight Project Manager, NASA JPL reacts to the first image to be seen from the Mars InSight lander shortly after confirmation of a successful touch down on the surface of Mars, Monday, Nov. 26, 2018 inside the Mission Support Area at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Photo & Caption Credit: Bill Ingalls / NASA

Spectators in Times Square watch the video board of the Nasdaq MarketSite showing the live NASA TV broadcast as NASA InSight team members celebrate inside the Mission Support Area of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory after receiving confirmation the lander successfully touched down on the surface of Mars, Monday, Nov. 26, 2018 in Times Square in New York City. Photo & Caption Credit: Joel Kowsky / SpaceFlight Insider

Spectators in Times Square watch the video board of the Nasdaq MarketSite showing the live NASA TV broadcast as NASA InSight team members celebrate inside the Mission Support Area of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory after receiving confirmation the lander successfully touched down on the surface of Mars, Monday, Nov. 26, 2018 in Times Square in New York City. Photo & Caption Credit: Joel Kowsky / SpaceFlight Insider

 

 

 

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Laurel Kornfeld is an amateur astronomer and freelance writer from Highland Park, NJ, who enjoys writing about astronomy and planetary science. She studied journalism at Douglass College, Rutgers University, and earned a Graduate Certificate of Science from Swinburne University’s Astronomy Online program. Her writings have been published online in The Atlantic, Astronomy magazine’s guest blog section, the UK Space Conference, the 2009 IAU General Assembly newspaper, The Space Reporter, and newsletters of various astronomy clubs. She is a member of the Cranford, NJ-based Amateur Astronomers, Inc. Especially interested in the outer solar system, Laurel gave a brief presentation at the 2008 Great Planet Debate held at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, MD.

Reader Comments

Great story. But it has bothered me for a long time, why do you and others always refer to JPL to be in Pasadena, CA, when in fact it is located in La Canada-Flintridge, CA?

Nov. 26, 2017

Hi George!
SUPER question. NASA says JPL is located in Pasadena and we don’t deviate from the source’s information. Have a great week!
Sincerely and with kind regards, Jason Rhian – Editor, NASA

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