CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- A NASA spacecraft designed to drill into Mars' interior landed on the planet Monday, setting off jubilation among scientists who had waited in suspense for confirmation to arrive across 100 million miles of space.
Flight controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., leaped out of their chairs, screaming, dancing and hugging upon learning that InSight had survived the supersonic plunge through Mars' red skies.
"Touchdown confirmed!" a flight controller called out just before 2 p.m. CST after the report about the spacecraft's six-minute descent.
Because of the distance between Earth and Mars, it took almost 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 journey. The extra 200 million miles of travel was necessary in part because Mars is traveling around the sun at almost 54,000 mph.
The time delay for transmissions from Earth to Mars and back means that scientists had no control over the process of landing. All they could do was program the spacecraft with their best technology and wait.
After the two satellites transmitted the news that InSight had touched down safely, they sent the InSight's first snapshot of Mars, which the spacecraft took just 4½ minutes after landing.
The picture was speckled with dirt because the dust cover was still on the lander's camera, but the terrain at first glance looked smooth and sandy with just one sizable rock visible -- pretty much what scientists had hoped for. Better photos are expected in the days ahead.
"Flawless," declared the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's chief engineer, Rob Manning.
"This is what we really hoped and imagined in our mind's eye," he added. "Sometimes things work out in your favor."
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, presiding over his first Mars landing as the space agency's boss, said: "What an amazing day for our country."
"This thing has a lot more to do," said Rob Grover, the entry, descent and landing systems engineer. "But just getting to the surface of Mars is no mean feat."
InSight, part of a $1 billion international mission, features a German-led mechanical mole that will burrow down 16 feet to measure the planet's internal heat. No man-made craft has ever dug deeper into Mars than several inches.
The lander also has a French-made seismometer for measuring quakes. Temblors on Mars are not caused by plate tectonics, as they are on Earth. Instead, they are generated when the planet's crust cracks because of its interior's cooling and shrinking. The seismometer could also detect vibrations from meteors hitting Mars.
Another experiment will calculate Mars' wobble to reveal the makeup of the planet's core.
"In the coming months and years even, history books will be rewritten about the interior of Mars," said the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's director, Michael Watkins.
It was NASA's -- and humanity's -- eighth successful landing on Mars since the 1976 Viking probes, and the first in six years. NASA's Curiosity rover, which arrived in 2012, is still on the move on Mars.
The success rate for Mars-bound spacecraft launched by the U.S., Russia and other spacefaring countries is just 40 percent, not counting InSight. The others have been lost or destroyed over the years.
NASA went with its old, straightforward approach this time, using a parachute and braking engines to get InSight's speed from 12,300 mph when it pierced the Martian atmosphere, about 77 miles up, to 5 mph at touchdown. The danger was that the spacecraft could burn up in the atmosphere or bounce off it.
The three-legged InSight settled on the western side of Elysium Planitia, the plain that NASA was aiming for. Project manager Tom Hoffman said the spacecraft landed close to the bull's-eye, but NASA did not have the final calculations Monday night.
He said it was hard to tell from the first photo whether there were any slopes nearby but that it appeared he got the flat, smooth "parking lot" he was hoping for -- what other scientists call "Kansas without the corn."
Museums, planetariums and libraries across the U.S. held viewing parties to watch the events unfold at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. NASA TV coverage was also shown on the giant screen in New York's Times Square, where crowds huddled under umbrellas in the rain.
The success of the two satellites trailing InSight mean a greater flow of data, photos and "a possible model for a new kind of interplanetary communications relay," systems engineer Anne Marinan said at a NASA news release last week.
The 800-pound InSight is stationary and will operate from the same spot for the next two years, the duration of a Martian year. Its first job was to get the fast picture out. The next task was unfolding its solar panels; NASA reported Monday night that they were open and recharging InSight's batteries.
It will take months to set up and fine-tune the instruments. During InSight's first five to six weeks on the ground, its managers will largely be checking the health of the spacecraft, including its robotic arm.
Lead scientist Bruce Banerdt said he doesn't expect to start getting a stream of solid data until late next spring.
"It's going to be awesome. I can't wait to start seeing marsquakes," Hoffman said.
After the checks, the robotic arm will lift the spacecraft's seismometer dome off the main deck of the lander and place it on the ground. A burrowing heat probe will be deployed after that and will take about 40 days to reach its final depth of 16 feet.
The mission's objective is to determine what Mars is made of and how it has changed since it formed more than 4 billion years ago. The results could help solve the mystery of how the Red Planet became the dry, desolate world we know it as today.
Early in its history, Mars may have looked a lot like Earth. Magnetization in ancient rocks suggests it had a global magnetic field like that of Earth, powered by a churning mantle and metallic core. The field would have protected the planet from radiation, allowing it to hold on to an atmosphere much thicker than the one that exists now.
That atmosphere likely enabled liquid water to pool on Mars' surface. Images from satellites reveal the outlines of long-gone lakes, deltas and river-carved canyons.
But the past 3 billion years have been a slow-motion disaster for Mars. The dynamo died, the magnetic field faltered, the water evaporated and more than half of the atmosphere was stripped away by solar winds.
The InSight mission was designed to find out why that happened, why the rocky planets in our solar system turned out so differently and why Earth became a haven for life.
But there are no life detectors aboard InSight. NASA's next mission, the Mars 2020 rover, will prowl for rocks that might contain evidence of ancient life.
Information for this article was contributed by Marcia Dunn of The Associated Press; by Sarah Kaplan of The Washington Post; and by Kenneth Chang of The New York Times.
A Section on 11/27/2018
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