NASA’s InSight lander touched down on Mars’ surface Monday afternoon, after surviving what scientists had called “seven minutes of terror” and making a near-miracle landing.
During those seven minutes, the probe raced through Mars’ atmosphere at a dizzying 12,300 miles per hour—more than 22 times faster than a Boeing 747—before screeching to a near-halt at five miles an hour and landing softly on the planet’s surface.
Scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory were bouncing in their seats as the probe raced towards the planet’s surface. Live video showed them erupting into hugs and cheers with the safe landing of the probe.
Minutes later, the first image from the probe came through: a white surface speckled with tiny black dots, likely dust on a cover that will soon be removed.
The mission went flawlessly. When the probe was about 7.5 miles from the surface, a parachute deployed to begin slowing the speed. The probe then jettisoned its parachute and heat shield and deployed 12 retro-thrusters to further slow its breakneck fall.
“It’s a very difficult thing to do, and everything has to go perfectly,” Devin Kipp, a systems engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said on NASA’s live stream ahead of Insight’s landing.
InSight’s safe journey certainly wasn’t a given. In 2016, the European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli probe turned off its retro-rockets too early, causing the device to crash and rendering it useless. (There are also dumber reasons why missions fail, like the NASA Mars Climate Orbiter that burned up in the atmosphere because engineers forgot to convert from the imperial system to the metric system). Only 40 percent of Mars missions successfully land on the planet, according to the Guardian.
That’s not all—due to an 8 minute communication lag, the entire sequence had to be pre-programmed in the days leading up to the landing.
“While most of the country was enjoying Thanksgiving with their family and friends, the InSight team was busy making the final preparations for Monday's landing,” Tom Hoffman, InSight’s project manager, said in a NASA press release. “Landing on Mars is difficult and takes a lot of personal sacrifices, such as missing the traditional Thanksgiving, but making InSight successful is well worth the extraordinary effort.”
The probe touched down on a flat, almost rock-free area of the planet known as the Elysium Planitia—an area that NASA once called “the biggest parking lot on Mars.”
Over the next two years, InSight will collect data on the Red Planet. One part of the probe, the Guardian adds, will burrow as much as 16 feet into the ground to measure heat flow near the surface. A seismometer so sensitive that it can track vibrations less than the width of an atom will capture data on earthquakes—or, more accurately, marsquakes. And two radio antennas on the lander will help scientists determine the size of Mars’ core, and whether that core is molten or solid.
“Once InSight is settled on the red planet and its instruments are deployed, it will start collecting valuable information about the structure of Mars’s deep interior,” Lori Glaze, acting director of Nasa’s planetary science division, told the Guardian. “Information that will help us understand the formation and evolution of all rocky planets, including the one we call home.”