NASA’s first spacecraft built to explore the deep interior of another world landed on a vast, barren plain on Mars Monday, carrying instruments to detect planetary heat and seismic rumblings never measured anywhere but Earth.
After sailing 548 million kilometres on a six-month voyage through deep space, the robotic lander InSight touched down on the dusty, rock-strewn surface of the Red Planet at about 3 p.m. EST (2000 GMT).
WATCH BELOW: Stakes are high for Mars InSight landing
InSight hurtled through the top of the thin Martian atmosphere at 19,310 kilometres per hour. Slowed by friction, deployment of a giant parachute and retro rockets, InSight descended 124 kilometres through pink Martian skies to the surface in 6-1/2 minutes, traveling a mere 8 kilometres per hour by the time it landed.
The stationary probe, launched in May from California, paused for 16 minutes for the dust to settle, literally, around its landing site, before disc-shaped solar panels unfurled like wings to provide power to the spacecraft.
The mission control team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) near Los Angeles had hoped to receive real-time confirmation of the craft’s arrival from data relayed by a pair of miniature satellites that were launched along with InSight and will be flying past Mars.
The JPL controllers also expected to receive a photograph of the probe’s new surroundings on the flat, smooth Martian plain close to the planet’s equator called the Elysium Planitia.
The site is roughly 600 kilometres from the 2012 landing spot of the car-sized Mars rover Curiosity, the last spacecraft sent to the Red Planet by NASA.
WATCH BELOW: InSight will study the interior of Mars
The smaller, 360-kilogram InSight – its name is short for Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport – marks the 21st U.S.-launched Mars missions, dating back to the Mariner fly-bys of the 1960s. Nearly two dozen other Mars missions have been sent from other nations.
InSight will spend 24 months – about one Martian year – using seismic monitoring and underground temperature readings to unlock mysteries about how Mars formed and, by extension, the origins of the Earth and other rocky planets of the inner solar system.
While Earth’s tectonics and other forces have erased most evidence of its early history, much of Mars – about one-third the size of Earth – is believed to have remained largely static, creating a geologic time machine for scientists.
WATCH BELOW: Why NASA sent InSight to Mars
InSight’s primary instrument is a French-built seismometer, designed to record the slightest vibrations from “marsquakes” and meteor impacts around the planet. The device, to be placed on the surface by the lander’s robot arm, is so sensitive it can measure a seismic wave just one half the radius of a hydrogen atom.
Scientists expect to see a dozen to 100 marsquakes during the mission, producing data to help them deduce the depth, density and composition of the planet’s core, the rocky mantle surrounding it, and the outermost layer, the crust.
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The NASA Viking probes of the mid-1970s were equipped with seismometers, too, but they were bolted to the top of the landers, a design that proved largely ineffective.
Apollo missions to the moon brought seismometers to the lunar surface as well. But InSight is expected to yield the first meaningful data on planetary seismic tremors beyond Earth.
InSight also is fitted with a German-made drill to burrow as much as 5 metres underground, pulling behind it a rope-like thermal probe to measure heat flowing from inside the planet.
WATCH BELOW: NASA launches InSight into space
Meanwhile, a radio transmitter will send back signals tracking Mars’ subtle rotational wobble to reveal the size of the planet’s core and possibly whether it remains molten.
NASA officials say it will take two to three months for the main instruments to be deployed and put into operation.