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Touchdown! NASA’s InSight has landed safely on Mars

After a six-month journey, NASA’s InSight probe has successfully landed on Mars.

The lander touched down just before 7am AEDT after hitting the planet’s atmosphere at 19,800 kph and descending through the blood-red skies to the desolate Martian surface.

Back at the control room at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, flight controllers flew out of their seats and exploded into excited cheers, applause and fits of laughter.

“Touchdown confirmed!” one flight controller announced to the joy of the entire NASA Mission Control room.

NASA is yet to announce whether the spacecraft sustained any damage, but it must be okay – it has transmitted its first image of the surface.

InSight landed at the Elysium Planitia, an expansive lava plain that NASA calls “the biggest parking lot on Mars”, but it’s concerned with what’s below the surface.

The probe will study Mars’ deep interior with the aim of learning about how Mars – and potentially other rocky planets – were born at the birth of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago.

Rain Irsha, one of the many scientists who worked on InSight, told The Guardian, “This is our first opportunity to look deep inside another planet, to look at the structure and find out why it ended up the way it did.”

To do so, the A$1.1 billion probe will burrow beneath the planet’s surface and use it’s array of complex instruments to study the dimensions of Mars’ core, mantle and crust.

InSight will use three instruments to undertake its study. A seismometer will listen for any tremors produced when the geological fault lines slip, which will give key information regarding whether Mars is seismically active.

Understanding the seismic activity will give information on Mars’ internal structure and reveal more about how the planet was formed and how it has evolved – or devolved – over time.

The lander will also use a heat probe to burrow underground and measure the rate that heat rises up from the planet’s core.

The third instrument allows scientists on earth to use special antennas attached to the lander to track its position. By tracking its movements, the scientists will be able to discern how much Mars sways on its axis.

While this landing went smoothly, Mars is notoriously difficult to land on. Attempts by the US, Russia and other countries since 1960 have only had a 40 per cent success rate.

It is NASA’s first Mars landing since 2012 and it promises to give us unprecedented information about the red planet.

Who knows what they may find under the surface – Martians, maybe?

Lead image: Bill Ingalls/NASA (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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