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NASA lander survives ‘seven minutes of terror’ to arrive on Mars

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Watch teams react as NASA’s InSight probe lands on Mars
NASA, Florida Today

NASA is back on Mars.

The space agency’s InSight mission survived its fiery plunge through the Red Planet’s thin atmosphere just before 3 p.m. EST Monday, deploying a supersonic parachute and firing retro-rockets to touch down softly on a flat plain near the Martian equator.

Engineers manning consoles at NASA’s Jet Propulsion laboratory in California erupted in cheers, hugs and high-fives at the confirmation that the mission launched nearly seven months earlier was positioned to start the first study of the Red Planet’s interior, from crust to core.

Applause broke out again minutes later when the lander returned its first picture, a dirt-spattered image of a rust-colored and apparently flat horizon.

“It was intense, and you could feel the emotion,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who was in the control room and received a congratulatory phone call from Vice President Mike Pence. “What an amazing day for NASA.”

Viewers gathered at watch parties around the globe to see the landing attempt, which was shown live in New York’s Times Square, among other places. They witnessed NASA’s eighth successful touchdown on Mars. 

The $814 million InSight mission launched May 5 aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California — NASA’s first interplanetary mission not to fly from Cape Canaveral.

On Monday, the spacecraft dropped its cruise stage a little after 2:30 p.m. and prepared to hit a precisely targeted point in Mars’ upper-atmosphere at 12,300 mph.

That marked the start of what NASA has dubbed “seven minutes of terror” — the plunge to the surface.

A heat shield weathered temperatures up to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. A parachute braked the spacecraft’s fall to below supersonic speed. The lander then shed the heat shield and a backshell, fired a dozen retro-rockets and deployed three shock-absorbing legs before landing in a cloud of dust.

The mission team learned about each milestone about eight minutes after it happened, the time it took radio signals to travel the 91 million miles back to Earth.

In a “first” for NASA, a crucial communications link was provided by a pair of briefcase-sized experimental satellites called “CubeSats,” which trailed InSight by about 3,000 miles. Named Mars Cube One, or MarCO, the tiny deep space explorers relayed a steady stream of data during the drop to the surface formally known as Entry, Descent and Landing, or EDL.

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At JPL, engineers wearing maroon mission shirts and armed with lucky peanuts cheered as telemetry confirmed each event.

The stationary lander is parked in Elysium Planitia, a “heavenly plain” that mission managers hoped would be as flat and rock-free as its name suggests, akin to “a giant Walmart parking lot.”

Insight’s arrival was cause for celebration because it was so difficult to achieve — fewer than half of all missions launched to Mars have reached it.

But the excitement needed to be tempered slightly by a nearly six-hour wait, after a pass by the Mars Odyssey orbiter, to confirm that critical power-generating solar arrays had unfurled properly.

That process was expected to begin after a brief pause to let the dust kicked up by the lander settle.

The landing also marked only the start of the real science mission, which faced a series of early challenges.

“Everything up to now has just been a prologue,” said Bruce Banerdt, the mission’s lead scientist from JPL. “It feels like a climax, but it’s actually the beginning.”

Over several months, InSight will use a robotic arm to deploy several science instruments provided by European partners — the first NASA mission to do so.

A seismometer will measure marsquakes and meteorite strikes, using the waves those events generated by those events to generate a 3-D picture of Mars’ interior.

“When we look at the crust of Mars, that’s a snapshot into the past of what the crust of the Earth might have looked like 4.5 billion years ago before it got all busy,” said Banerdt.

That knowledge will inform understanding of how rocky bodies like the Earth and the moon evolve, as well as planets in other solar systems.

Contact Dean at 321-917-4534 or jdean@floridatoday.com. And follow on Twitter at @flatoday_jdean and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/FlameTrench.

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