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NASA InSight rover lands perfectly—now its mission begins

Nov. 27, 2018

Clad in a NASA T-shirt, I just finished watching a spacecraft land on Mars, which is something that can’t be said every day. At 1:57 p.m. CT Monday afternoon, NASA’s InSight Rover touched down on the dusty red planet, ending a seven-month journey that took the craft 301,223,981 miles from Earth.

NASA InSight’s first image captured from the surface of Mars, taken shortly after the rover touched down on the planet at 1:57 p.m. CT. Credit: NASA

OK, so I didn’t actually watch InSight land. I watched NASA’s YouTube livestream from the control room, where dozens of project members anxiously tracked their $830 million rover’s descent, landing and confirmation of working communications, celebrating a series of milestones along the way.

InSight landed at Elysium Planitia—considered a flat and open region coined “the biggest parking lot on Mars” by astronomers.

And while the landing went perfectly, it was only the first major milestone that will determine if InSight is successful. Later Monday night (approximately 7:35 p.m. CT), NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter will confirm if InSight’s solar arrays deployed. Then, it begins a three-month deployment phase of InSight’s instruments as part of its two-year prime mission of burrowing a heat probe and performing a series of radio experiments to study the internal structure and rotation of Mars.

I try and watch the livestream’s of many notable NASA launches and landings, as well as space launches from private enterprise like SpaceX and Blue Origin. I’m a proud space and cosmic phenomena nerd. My wife and I even made the 450-mile drive from Madison, WI to a campground near the southern Illinois border to watch the 2017 total solar eclipse at totality in August 2017. Three months later, we took the full tour at Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX, which I highly recommend if you get the chance.

Watching NASA’s livestream of the landing and aftermath, I kept thinking about just how much testing it must take to develop a Mars rover and then pull off the feat of successfully landing it 300 million miles from Earth. I wonder how far in advance that testing begins in the component stage up to testing instruments on the vehicle. Hopefully someday I’ll have the opportunity to ask a NASA project engineer about that timeline and what’s involved.

What a ginormous financial and labor waste it would be to send this craft to Mars and land it perfectly, only to find out a key instrument or component of its drill doesn’t function correctly due to something missed in the testing stage. It was only a few minutes before Monday’s landing that I learned that InSight was originally supposed to launch back in March of 2016, but a persistent vacuum failure in its seismometer caused it to miss its launch window and delay it until May of 2018. That setback added approximately $150 million to the total project cost.

If you’re a space junkie like me and want to keep tabs on InSight’s developments, the craft has its own Twitter account at @NASAInSight, where updates will be posted regularly.

Congrats to NASA InSight team, and best of luck on this mission.

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