A little before Monday noon, all the spectators of the auditorium Theodore von Kármán of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) of NASA in California sat at the top of their seat. They watched in front of them a video screen showing a live view of the inside of the JPL Mission Control Center. On the screen, rows of engineers were also sitting, fascinated by their computer console, when a flight controller announced altitude measurements via an intercom.
"Altitude 400 meters. 300 meters. 200 meters. 80 meters. 60 meters. "
And then, a few moments later, the last call: "Touchdown confirmed".
Immediately, the engineers and auditors began to applaud and applaud. In jubilation, many threw their hands in the air or their arms around their colleagues. Some came prepared with elaborate handshake routines. That was the result everyone was hoping for: NASA's last spacecraft had landed successfully on the surface of Mars, and he had apparently managed to do it in one piece.
All the spectators of the von Kármán auditorium came together to watch this lander, called InSight, reach his final destination. Unlike some of its predecessors, InSight will not circulate on the surface of the planet. Its mission is relatively simple: sit on Mars and listen to earthquakes. The seismic waves of these oscillations will help the scientists of the planet to decode the structure of the interior of Mars, as ultrasonic do to show what is inside a person's body.
But the road was very long to reach this point. InSight has been in development at Lockheed Martin and JPL for a decade, and suffered an additional two years after the engineers discovered a defect in one of its key instruments. The problem was finally solved and culminated with the launch of the LG in May. The vehicle then crossed the space during the last six and a half months to be able to dive into the atmosphere of Mars on Monday.
Members of the press, planetary scientists, engineers, social media influencers and even some celebrities started flocking to JPL on Monday morning to "watch" the live landing, although we all knew we were not would not do it. see the event – at least not visually. There are no cameras on Mars to record spacecraft arriving to land. And it would not be really live either. At the present time, it takes more than eight minutes for a light signal to reach the Earth since March. So, in fact, we had all come to hear the mission team had managed to land eight minutes after touchdown.
But although it did not have a real-time visual display of the landing, JPL did have something worthy of the trip: many scientists crowded around the sunny government campus. Members of the InSight team are easily spotted with their matching burgundy button-down shirts featuring the InSight Mission logo. And they all vibrated with a mixture of jubilance and anxiety. Some of the scientists, including the lander's principal investigator, Bruce Banerdt, have been working on this form of mission for decades, waiting for that day. But a landing on Mars is always a frightening prospect, with the fear of a heavy crash in the air.
It's because reaching anything on Mars is the worst. Compared to landing a spacecraft on the Earth or on the Moon, Mars is considered "the worst of both worlds". Unlike the Moon, Mars has an atmosphere that makes spacecraft warm up to extreme temperatures as they travel to the ground. . And although this atmosphere helps slow down vehicles, the air is still very thin – about 1% of the density of the Earth's atmosphere – so as not to slow down spacecraft. enough. A parachute alone is not enough, but thrusters are also needed to gently lower a vehicle. The more space a ship becomes, the harder it is to land on Mars.
Fortunately, InSight is a relatively light spacecraft weighing only 789 pounds. For decades, NASA has been able to maintain even larger vehicles on the surface of Mars. The InSight team designed the landing gear to perform a complicated landing procedure that was to be executed in just six and a half minutes. But even with years of preparation, sometimes Mars may have the top of a spaceship.
In the hours leading up to the landing, InSight scientists spoke with curious visitors about what to expect. NASA's Jim Bridenstine was also present, making a series of discussions in front of the camera while standing in front of a life-sized model of the InSight lander. At this point, there was nothing left to talk about to stay busy. InSight was more or less on the autopilot. The last orders had been sent to the LG and the team could only hope that their efforts would bear fruit.
As the planned landing approached, all JPL personnel began to move to the various locations where it was needed. The InSight team took its place in the control of the mission, while myself and other members of the media gathered in the auditorium von Kármán to watch a live stream of engineers. If everything went as planned, we would have a countdown to the landing. Along with InSight, NASA launched two tiny satellites called MarCO, which would attempt to return the landing data. The MarCO probes were experimental, so it was not a guarantee that we would hear them.
In the minutes leading up to the landing, we heard a hopeful phrase from the mission leaders: "MarCO Bravo locked the carrier. MarCO Alpha has also blocked the carrier. The control of the mission broke under applause. I exchanged a few smiles with other reporters from the space in the room. "It's a good sign!" I said, surprised. MarCO satellites received signals from InSight, which meant that we did not know how each step of the landing process would unfold, which is a luxury the Martian missions did not have.
From that moment, the ride went smoothly – for InSight and for us in the auditorium. Thanks to the MarCO satellites, we were able to confirm each major event. When InSight deployed its parachute, the room applauded. When the radar fell to the ground, everyone applauded. And then, a few feet from the surface, everyone held their breath until the final call.
A few hours later, the same von Kármán auditorium was filled with members of the InSight team, press and fans. High-level scientists and InSight project leader Tom Hoffman came in, hands raised in triumph, while the audience applauded and applauded. Hoffman thanked all the scientists and engineers in the room who worked countless hours to allow a six-and-a-half-minute landing. "You were working on Thanksgiving, but not only on Thanksgiving," he said. "You missed a lot of different holidays and important events to make it a success. And today, it was all worth it. "