NASA's InSight Mars lander is in good health as it completes its first day on the Martian surface and readies to begin the first phase of its two-year mission to study the interior of the Red Planet. At about 5:35 pm PST (8:35 pm EST), or five and a half hours after today's dramatic landing, the space agency's Mars Odyssey orbiter passed over the landing site in Elysium Planitia and was scheduled to confirm that InSight's solar panels had properly deployed.
After a seven-month cruise and "seven-minutes of terror" during which the unmanned InSight lander descended to the surface of Mars, NASA had cause for celebration, but the robotic explorer wasn't out of the rough yet. Though the landing came off flawlessly, with telemetry data and the first image coming back within seconds of touchdown, the most important question remained. Did its solar panels deploy?
Unlike the earlier Curiosity rover mission, InSight is solar powered and without its panels its batteries can only sustain it for a matter of hours. According to the mission schedule, deployment of the solar panels should have started 16 minutes after landing and take 16 minutes to complete. Unfortunately, there's no one on Mars to tell mission control if that has happened, so NASA engineers had to wait five and a half hours for Odyssey to fly overhead to provide visual confirmation.
There's no official word on the panels as yet, but after the Odyssey flyover deadline, NASA released the first "selfie" taken by InSight on the ground, indicating that all systems are still "go."
"We are solar powered, so getting the arrays out and operating is a big deal," said Hoffman. "With the arrays providing the energy we need to start the cool science operations, we are well on our way to thoroughly investigate what's inside of Mars for the very first time."
Meanwhile, the two small experimental satellites called the Mars Cube One (MarCO) CubeSats have completed their mission and are speeding into a well-earned retirement. They rode along with InSight during its May 5 launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and are the first CubeSats to be used on an interplanetary mission.
The idea was for the MarCOs to demonstrate the ability of CubeSats to work under such harsh and distant conditions, and to also act as an experimental relay between InSight and mission control during landing. NASA says that the relay wasn't necessary, but it did allow for a communications link without having to rely on one of the larger Mars orbiters or a direct link with the lander. Having completed their task, the MarCOs are now flying past Mars and into an orbit around the Sun.
Now that InSight is operational, it will spend its first week undergoing testing before it can deploy its 5.9-ft (1.8-m) robotic arm and take clearer images of the surrounding area. Once it is up and running, the lander will place a number of geological instruments on the surface and drill down into the interior of the planet. It is scheduled to continue operations until November 20, 2020.
"Today, we successfully landed on Mars for the eighth time in human history," says NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. "InSight will study the interior of Mars, and will teach us valuable science as we prepare to send astronauts to the Moon and later to Mars. This accomplishment represents the ingenuity of America and our international partners and it serves as a testament to the dedication and perseverance of our team. The best of NASA is yet to come, and it is coming soon."
The video below recaps the InSight landing.
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