Less than a week has passed since NASA's Insight spacecraft settled into its dusty landing site on the surface of Mars, but the intrepid science laboratory is already breaking new ground. Data sent back to Earth has confirmed that not only is the lander in full working order, it has claimed a new record for power generation on the Red Planet.
Insight touched down on Mars last Monday after a seven-month journey, with images and telemetry data continuing to verify the lander is in a good state and functioning just as it was designed to do. That includes relaying photos of itself and the landing site, which NASA describes as a "large sandbox," and deploying the solar arrays it will use to power its scientific endeavors.
Without those solar panels, InSight's batteries can only keep the lander running for a matter of hours, so a successful unfurling was kind of a big deal. NASA had to wait for the Odyssey orbiter to fly overhead to confirm they had been successfully deployed. But also important to its energy-generation pursuits is its placement on the surface of Mars. If InSight touched down on too steep a slope, alongside a huge rock or facing the wrong direction, that could seriously hamper its ability to draw power from the Sun.
We now know that both of its solar arrays were successfully deployed shortly after landing. Not only that, during the lander's first full day on Mars, it generated more electrical power from the planet's surface than any other vehicle before it. Its 4,588 Wh far outstrips Curiosity's best effort of 2,806 Wh of radioisotope power, and the roughly 1,800 Wh of solar power produced by the Phoenix lander.
"It is great to get our first 'off-world record' on our very first full day on Mars," said InSight project manager Tom Hoffman. "But even better than the achievement of generating more electricity than any mission before us is what it represents for performing our upcoming engineering tasks. The 4,588 watt-hours we produced during sol 1 means we currently have more than enough juice to perform these tasks and move forward with our science mission."
InSight will need all the power it can get as it pushes the scientific boundaries of what we know about Mars. Its primary means of doing so involves drilling down into the planet's interior to conduct geological experiments to learn more about how Mars, and bodies like the Earth and the Moon, formed. And the final setting for these experiments is also filling mission control with optimism, with the latest images and data revealing new details about InSight's home.
The lander is slightly tilted, at an angle of around four degrees, inside a shallow crater filled with sand and dust. Though it is engineered to operate at angles of up to 15 degrees, the lesser the incline and amount of surrounding rocks, the better it is for mission success. More high-definition images will be used to scout for InSight's precise drilling location, with testing of its systems and mechanical drilling arm to take place over the coming two to three months.
"The science team had been hoping to land in a sandy area with few rocks since we chose the landing site, so we couldn't be happier," says Hoffman. "There are no landing pads or runways on Mars, so coming down in an area that is basically a large sandbox without any large rocks should make instrument deployment easier and provide a great place for our mole to start burrowing."
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