NASA’s InSight lander has officially touched down on Mars

A life-size model of the spaceship Insight NASA's first robotic lander dedicated to studying the deep interior of Mars. REUTERS

A life-size model of the spaceship Insight NASA's first robotic lander dedicated to studying the deep interior of Mars. REUTERS

Though attempting to land on the surface of Mars is never an easy thing, it seems that InSight's arrival went about as well as could be expected.

"We've studied Mars from orbit and from the surface since 1965, learning about its weather, atmosphere, geology and surface chemistry", Lori Glaze, acting director of the Planetary Science Division in NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said in a news release. "But even after landing, we'll need to be patient for the science to begin", Bruce Banerdt of JPL, InSight's principal investigator, said, according to the NASA statement. However, we can likely expect to see better-quality images of the Red Planet in the future, as InSight's mission progresses.

What will NASA's Mars InSight lander study? It will look at the insides of Mars - what it's made of, how that material is layered and how much heat seeps out of it.

InSight has no life-detecting capability, however. That will be part of NASA's next mission, the Mars 2020 rover, which will prowl for rocks that might contain evidence of ancient life. After launch in May and successful instrument checks during the cruise to Mars, the team are absolutely delighted to witness the landing. Mars stopped changing, while Earth continued to evolve.

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The dramatic arrival of the $993 million spacecraft - created to listen for quakes and tremors as a way to unveil the Red Planet's inner mysteries, how it formed billions of years ago and, by extension, how other rocky planets like Earth took shape - marked the eighth successful landing on Mars in NASA's history. In less time than it takes to hard-boil an egg, InSight slowed from 12,300 miles per hour to 5 miles per hour before it gently landed on the surface of Mars, according to NASA.

"He watched the whole thing, he is absolutely ecstatic about our programme, as you're aware he's the chairman of the National Space Council, and he's been a keen advocate of what we do and to have him call within seconds of mission success is incredible". But every landing on Mars is risky and we were waiting nervously at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to get the first signal back from the successful landing. "It's such a unsafe thing that there's always a fairly uncomfortably large chance that something could go wrong".

The landing capped a six-month journey of 301 million miles (548 million km) from Earth, following InSight's launch from California in May. Updates were coming in via radio signals that take more than eight minutes to cross the almost 100 million miles (160 million kilometers) between Mars and Earth. The news is being relayed by a pair of mini satellites that have been following InSight since their May launch.

As soon as the spacecraft touched the surface of the red planet, cheers and applause erupted at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

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The image was marred by specks of debris.

"This is what we really hoped and imagined in our mind's eye", he said. Lockheed Martin worked with NASA engineers to ensure the spacecraft could withstand the stress of entry and descent.

The lander (6m × 1.56m, deck height 83-108 cm) carries a robotic arm 1.8 m long.

When InSight arrives, its scientists will spend two to three months analysing its landing area to determine where to place two of these three instruments, SEIS or the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure and HP3 or the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Probe. Two complementary engineering cameras help with navigation and hazard avoidance. What about either planet's composition allowed life to flourish and water to exist on one, but caused the water to disappear from the other?

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