When the NASA InSight lander successfully landed on Mars yesterday, it was the end of a seven-month trip to the red planet. But this landing also marked the beginning of the next phase of the mission's $ 850 million, two-year mission.
"Now that we are on the surface of Mars, we still have a lot of work to do," said Elizabeth Barrett, who heads the team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, responsible for deploying and using the instruments of InSight, said in a briefing yesterday landing.
"The first thing to do is to evaluate the health of our spaceship and the instruments that accompanied us, then to look at our landing site," she added.
The 800-pound lander is stationed in a vast plain north of the Martian equator, known as the Elysium Planitia – a zone virtually free of rocks that was faintly visible on the first returned photo of the undercarriage. Over the next two or three months, Barrett and his team will ask the robotic arm of the landing gear to snatch each scientific instrument from the machine and place it directly on the Martian surface.
"I compare that to playing this claw game at a carnival, but you do it with a really precious price, and you do it with blindfolded, where you can only take occasional pics, and then you do it via the remote control on another planet, "said Barrett.
The team will begin with InSight's dome-shaped seismometer, designed to spy on the depths of the interior of Mars, monitor seismic activity, and measure the frequency and magnitude of marsquakes.
Approximately two weeks after the seismometer and its shield are installed, the arm will deploy a probe that will hammer to a maximum depth of 16 feet below the surface. This probe will measure the amount of heat coming from the depths of the planet.
The seismometer and the thermal probe are designed to give scientists new information on the formation and evolution of Mars, Earth and other rocky planets.
Even though the landing point of InSight is usually flat, placing the instruments from the aircraft to the surface is a delicate and risky process. But the Jet Propulsion Lab team in Pasadena, California, will have time to repeat.
"We have a test bench in which we will really adapt to the Martian area where we will land, and we will train ourselves to make sure everything goes well," Barrett said.
Once the InSight instruments are in place, the scientific mission of the LG can actually begin. "At that time, we will sit and listen to these marsquakes and measure the vital signs of Mars," said Barrett. "We are really looking forward to that."
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