The InSight lander, NASA's latest incursion into the red planet, has landed.
Cheers erupted Monday at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, which operates the spacecraft, when InSight acknowledged receipt of its arrival safely on Mars. It was the end of a trip of more than six months and 300 million miles.
As InSight went down and every step of the landing process was announced, "the hairs on my neck would start to rise a little higher, a little higher," said Tom Hoffman, project manager at the mission. press conference after landing. "And when we finally got the confirmation of the touchdown, it was completely unbelievable. The whole room went crazy. My little four-year-old is out.
In the coming months, InSight will begin its study of the Martian underground world by listening to tremors – marsquakes – and collect data that will be collected in a map of the interior of the red planet and help scientists understand how Mars and from other formed planets rocks.
These lessons could also shed light on the origins of the Earth.
"We can basically use Mars as a time machine to look at what the Earth must have looked like tens of millions of years after it was formed," said Bruce Banerdt, the mission's chief investigator. .
InSight sits at Elysium Planitia, near the Equator in the Northern Hemisphere. Scientists at the mission described the area as a parking lot or "Kansas without corn". In a few minutes, the first photo of InSight appeared on the screen, sparking new cheers.
The image was partially obscured by the dirt raised by a protective but transparent lens cover, but it was obvious that the landscape was flat. A rock could be seen in the foreground.
"I am very very happy that it seems we have an incredibly safe and boring landing place," said Mr. Hoffman.
Because the mission is not interested in rocky terrain or beautiful sunsets, the planners wanted a flat spot with sandy soil. "There is a stone, so I'll have to talk to them a bit," joked Mr. Hoffman.
The main scientific part of the mission will not start for a few months. Once mission officials have confirmed the spacecraft's health, including its robotic arm, it will lift the main spacecraft instruments from the landing gear's main deck and place them on Martian soil. .
Elizabeth Barrett, a scientific systems engineer, compared the process to a game of claws in which one tries to win a prize without letting it down. "But you are doing it with a really, really precious price," she said. "And you do it blindfolded where you can only take occasional photos, and then you do it via the remote control on another planet."
This requires extra care. "You have to make sure you have the hook on the payload before lifting it and that it is on the ground before letting it go," said Dr. Barrett.
The main mission of InSight on the surface is to last almost two years.
Mr. Banerdt hopes to learn a simple thing: what is the thickness of the crust of Mars?
He recalled a project on which he had worked as a trainee in the 1970s, where the thickness of the Mars crust needed to be known. "We just had to pretend, because we had no idea," he said.
InSight should finally provide the answer. "That's one of the things I'd like to get back to the old paper: plug it in to see how close I was," said Dr. Banerdt.
The mission seeks to answer other questions: how often does the ground tremble with marsquakes? What is the size of the molten core of Mars? How much heat is coming from the disintegration of radioactive elements in the heart?
To study these questions, InSight will use two main instruments: a dome-shaped housing containing seismometers and a thermal probe that must widen to a depth of about 16 feet. NASA spent $ 814 million for InSight. In addition, France and Germany have invested $ 180 million to build these key instruments.
Seismometers, designed to measure surface movements less than the width of a hydrogen atom, will essentially produce sonograms of the interior of the planet. Scientists are looking to record at least 10 to 12 Marchquakes over two years.
Temblors on Mars are not caused by plate tectonics, as on Earth. Instead, they are generated when the earth's crust cracks due to cooling and narrowing of its interior. Seismometers could also detect other seismic vibrations from meteors striking Mars.
The landing of InSight was not the only success of NASA on Monday. The agency used this mission to test new technologies.
Two identical spacecraft, christened Mars Cube One, or MarCO, were launched with InSight in May. MarCO A and B then separated from InSight's cruise stage and remained behind.
Hundreds of miniature satellites called CubeSats have orbited the Earth in recent years, but this is the first time that CubeSats has been sent on an interplanetary voyage.
The MarCO spacecraft perfectly relayed InSight's telemetry on Earth, allowing an immediate celebration. "It was a fantastic day for small and large spaceships," said Andrew Klesh, CubeSats Chief Engineer.
He showed a photo of Mars taken by one of the MarCO satellites shortly after landing in InSight while it was moving away from Mars.
"This image is really our goodbye to InSight, our wish for good luck and a goodbye to Mars itself as we continue," he said.
InSight joins a busy cast of Martian robot explorers.
In orbit, NASA also owns Mars, Mars Odyssey and Maven reconnaissance orbiter. The European Space Agency has Mars Express and the ExoMars Tracer Gas Orbiter. The Indian Space Research Organization's mission is Mars Orbiter, also known as Mangalyaan.
On the surface, NASA is currently offering the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers, though Solar-powered Opportunity has been quiet since the summer, when a global dust storm prevented it from generating enough energy to run.
And the year 2020 could be busier, when NASA plans to launch another mobile that will seek the basics of life.
China, India, Japan, the United Arab Emirates and a Euro-Russian collaboration also intend to launch missions to Mars at the time.