NASA InSight nails Mars landing after scary six minutes

A new NASA spacecraft touches down in a wide Mars plain, where it will spend many months and perhaps years studying the inside of our nearest planetary neighbor.

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Eric Mack
5 min read

The excited scene post-touchdown at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. 


Robots are beginning to build up a substantial presence on Mars with the successful landing of NASA's InSight spacecraft on the Red Planet. The touchdown at 11:54 a.m. PT Monday followed a seven-month, 300-million-mile (485 million kilometer) journey from Southern California that started back in May.

InSight is the first robot to land on Mars since 2012, when the Curiosity rover took two worlds by storm on one day. But unlike its wheeled cousins, InSight will be sticking in one place. Rather than rolling around on the surface, it will drill below it to investigate what is going on inside our neighbor. 

Watch this: NASA's InSight sticks its Martian landing

"It was intense," NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said following the landing, which included a nerve-wracking six-minute descent through the Martian atmosphere during which a high-speed parachute deployment and landing went off perfectly.

Bridenstine was among those on hand at mission control at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. He passed on congratulations from Vice President Mike Pence.

"Incredible milestone," the vice president tweeted. 

The lander is equipped with gear developed around the world to detect "Marsquakes" (earthquakes, but on Mars) and study the internal structure of the planet. 

NASA InSight lander rocks its journey to Mars: A view in pictures

See all photos

"We've studied Mars from orbit and from the surface since 1965, learning about its weather, atmosphere, geology and surface chemistry," said Lori Glaze, acting director of NASA's Planetary Science Division in a statement. "Now we finally will explore inside Mars and deepen our understanding of our terrestrial neighbor as NASA prepares to send human explorers deeper into the solar system."  

We've already gotten the first image from the surface. More important for the sustained success of the mission, NASA awaits confirmation that the lander's two solar arrays have successfully deployed. To do this, InSight will need to wait a while until all the dust kicked up from landing has settled. 

Unfortunately, by the time the solar arrays are unfurled, the MarCO cubesats launched along with InSight and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will be out of view of Insight. That means that NASA will need to wait over five hours to get confirmation that InSight's solar panels are up and working. 

Watch this: NASA's InSight mission is about to drill Mars

Below, follow the exciting moments leading up to InSight's approach to the surface of our neighboring planet. 

11:55 a.m. PT: All the data relayed from InSight to Earth via MarCO and the MRO indicates that the landing went as expected. Next up, InSight will wait for the dust to settle, hopefully send back some photos of the surface and then begin to unfurl its solar panels. All that will take hours for NASA to confirm.

11:54 a.m. PT: TOUCHDOWN! No points, though. Just a new spacecraft on the surface of Mars.

11:53 a.m. PT: Almost there! 200 meters to landing!

11:51 a.m. PT: Mission control has received confirmation that the parachute has deployed. Now they'll be checking that the speed is slowing as expected and the parachute is working. No sign of anything wrong so far.

11:52 a.m. PT: Insight now descending through the atmosphere at 1,000 meters per second. The parachute is about to deploy. This is the first spot where something could go catastrophically wrong.

11:49 a.m. PT: Insight is now in the Martian atmosphere and experiencing temperatures up to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. A lot of the radio call outs from mission control seem to be quite conscious of the international audience, adding details like this.

11:44 a.m. PT: Next up, things really begin to heat up, literally. The heat shield that protects Insight's equipment will begin to "touch" the atmosphere and that friction will start to slow it down while also attempting to burn it to a crisp. Fortunately, 21st-century materials technology should prevent this from happening.

11:42 a.m. PT: InSight has now disconnected from its cruise stage and begun communicating with the MarCOs via its own on-board antenna. It's also oriented itself to prepare for entering the atmosphere in a few minutes. Things are starting to get tense, but so far so good.

11:35 a.m. PT: Mission control just confirmed that we are now 20 minutes away from entry into the top of the Martian atmosphere.

11:32 a.m. PT: Mission control at NASA JPL has confirmed communication links with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and both MarCO cubesats.

11:28 a.m. PT: If you want the feeling of being there yourself, NASA has this 360-degree live view of mission control. 

11:21 a.m. PT: We're 20 minutes out from cruise stage separation, which is when the action really starts to heat up. From there, the spacecraft will orient itself for entering the thin Martian atmosphere and then for a brief but still hot and terrifying descent.

11:15 a.m. PT: According to InSight project manager Tom Hoffman, InSight will make use of three other spacecraft to communicate with mission control on Earth. One is the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, but there are also two small cubesats that were launched along with InSight in May to help relay data from InSight back to Earth. We'll be hearing more about the two small satellites, named MarCO A and MarCO B, before and after landing.

11:11 a.m. PT: It's a tradition, but not a superstition, to pass around peanuts at mission control leading up to a landing. NASA invites you to join in and have some peanuts at home (provided you aren't allergic, of course.) 

11:05 a.m. PT: Coverage from mission control is now live as teams prepare for the entry, descent and landing phase of the mission (EDL). The InSight mission and landing is being run from two control rooms: one at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and another at Lockheed Martin in suburban Denver, Colorado. The company was the prime contractor in building InSight, which stands for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport.

According to Christine Szalai from the EDL team at JPL mission control in Pasadena, California: EDL software update was sent to InSight yesterday to get the spacecraft's on-board computers all the last minute data it needs to get to the surface safely. It will be handling its own landing essentially autonomously. 

10:45 a.m. PT: NASA's live coverage of the landing from Mission Control will start soon. Meanwhile, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine is on location and taking selfies:

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