NASA’s Mars science lander InSight touched down safely on the surface of the Red Planet on Monday to begin its two-year mission as the first spacecraft designed to explore the deep interior of another world.
Engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) near Los Angeles burst into cheers and applause as they received signals confirming InSight’s arrival on Martian soil – a vast, barren plain near the planet’s equator – shortly before 3 p.m. EST (2000 GMT)
Minutes later, JPL controllers received a fuzzy “selphie” photograph of the probe’s new surroundings on the Red Planet, showing the edge of one lander leg beside a rock.
The landing data and first image were relayed to Earth from one of two miniature satellites that were launched along with InSight and were flying past Mars as it reached its destination.
The landing capped a six-month journey of 301 million miles (548 million km) from Earth, following InSight’s launch from California in May.
Carrying instruments that detect planetary heat and seismic rumblings never measured anywhere else but Earth, the stationary lander streaked into the thin Martian atmosphere at 12,300 miles (19,795 km) per hour.
Its 77-mile descent was then slowed by atmospheric friction, a giant parachute and retro rockets, bringing the three-legged spacecraft to a gentle landing within seven minutes.
Once landed, the stationary probe was programmed to pause for 16 minutes for the dust to settle, literally, around its landing site, before two disc-shaped solar panels were to be unfurled like wings to provide power to the spacecraft.
But scientists did not expect to verify successful deployment of the solar arrays for at least several hours.
The 880-pound (360 kg) InSight – its name is short for Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport – marks the 21st U.S.-launched Mars mission, dating back to the Mariner fly-bys of the 1960s. Nearly two dozen other Mars missions have been sent from other nations.
InSight’s new home in the middle of Elysium Planitia, a wide, relatively smooth expanse close to the planet’s equator, is roughly 373 miles (600 km) from the 2012 landing spot of the car-sized Mars rover Curiosity, the last spacecraft sent to the Red Planet by NASA.