InSight Lander Touches Down on Mars to Explore the Red Planet

The Mars InSight Lander touched down successfully on the Red Planet on Monday, November 26. The spacecraft landed on Elysium Planitia on Mars at 2:53 pm EST, marking the eighth time NASA has successfully placed a spacecraft on the surface of Mars.

The lander will study the environment of the red planet, and use sensors to investigate the interior of this alien world. Researchers hope the InSight mission will reveal new information about the formation and composition of all rocky planets, including the Earth.

“The lander plunged through the thin Martian atmosphere, heatshield first, and used a parachute to slow down. It fired its retro rockets to slowly descend to the surface of Mars, and land on the smooth plains of Elysium Planitia,” NASA explained in a statement about the landing.

The control room at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) erupts in cheers seconds after InSight touched down on Mars. Image: NASA TV

Known as “the parking lot of Mars,” Elysium Planitia is a smooth plain near the equator of the Red Planet. One of the reasons this area was chosen was that sunlight at the equator is powerful enough to power the solar panels on which InSight depends.

Data collected by InSight is transmitted from the lander via UHF radio waves. However, those transmissions are not powerful enough to reach the Earth. Therefore, the information must be sent to orbiters capable of sending that data to Earth. Because the orbiters currently in place around the Ref Planet were in the wrong position to transmit data during landing, NASA engineered a pair of tiny CubeSats called Mars Cube One (MarCO) to send the information to Earth. This could herald a new wave of technology for transmitting data from spacecraft to mission controllers on our home planet.

InSight was launched on May 5 of this year, aboard an Atlas V-401 rocket, from Vandenberg Air Force Base. This was the first time a vehicle has ever been launched to another planet from California.

Only about 40 percent of all missions sent to Mars have been a success, and so far, the United States is the only country which has placed landers on its surface. The technology used for InSight is similar to that utilized for the Phoenix spacecraft which touched down at the north pole of Mars in 2008.

Mission engineers expect the vehicle to last just over one Mars year, roughly two years here on Earth.