That’s eight Mars landings and counting for NASA
NASA’s latest Mars lander, InSight, successfully touched down on the surface of the Red Planet this afternoon, surviving an intense plunge through the Martian atmosphere. It marks the eighth picture-perfect landing on Mars for NASA, adding to the space agency’s impressive track record of putting spacecraft on the planet. And now, InSight’s two-year mission has begun, one that entails listening for Marsquakes to learn about the world’s interior.
After six and a half months of traveling through space, InSight hit the top of Mars’ atmosphere a little before 3PM ET. It then made a daring descent to the surface, performing a complex multistep routine that slowed the lander from more than 12,000 miles per hour to just 5 miles per hour before it hit the ground. To get to the surface safely, InSight had to autonomously deploy a supersonic parachute, gather radar measurements, and ignite its thrusters all at the right time. Altogether, the landing took just under seven minutes to complete, prompting the nickname “seven minutes of terror.”
During the plunge, two tiny spacecraft above Mars gathered data of the entire event. The pair of probes are known as the MarCO satellites, and they actually launched in May with InSight from California. The two satellites are modified CubeSats, a type of standardized spacecraft made out of 10-centimeter cubes. They’ve been traveling to Mars on their own ever since launch, making them the first CubeSats to ever go into deep space.
The MarCO satellites flew over the Red Planet as InSight performed its landing, coming within 2,175 miles of the surface. InSight sent out multiple signals during its fall that the MarCO satellites received, deciphered, and then sent back to Earth. That gave NASA engineers an almost real-time understanding of how each step in the landing process occurred.