A spacecraft carrying millions of pounds worth of British equipment has successfully landed on Mars, launching a two-year mission to mine more information about the Red Planet.

 

Nasa's InSightprobe came to a gentle landing on the Red Planet broad, dusty plain of Elysium Planitia at 7.55pm on Monday night, the first spacecraft to do so for six years.

 

The seven-minute, rapid deceleration through the thin Martian atmosphere involved the use of small rockets, parachutes, heat shields and shock-absorbing legs.

 

Scores of Nasa engineers, project managers and investigators gathered at the California Institute of Technology to watch nervously as the descent took place. There were occasional bursts of cautious applause as it passed critical points of peak heating and parachute inflation.

 

As the probe deployed its 12-metre supersonic parachute, the team clapped with relief.

 

But when the announcer said “touchdown confirmed” they jumped to the air, dancing and cheering.

 

As the dust settled two or three minutes later, Insight relayed the first image taken from one of its two cameras. Commentators described the landing as “perfect” and “flawless”.

 

It was due to unfurl its solar panels within hours of the landing.

 

Over the next three months, Insight will deploy instruments designed to probe beneath the Martian surface before it begins to collect information about the planet's deep structure.

 

Three of those instruments were designed and built by engineers at Imperial College and Oxford University and will listen out for "Marsquakes" which could hint at the likelihood of previous life on the planet.

 

Over the course of two years, scientists expect to detect between a dozen and 100 of the tremors, which could range up to six on the Richter scale.

 

If successful, the three-legged probe, which launched from California on May 5, will help scientists learn about how rocky worlds like the Earth and Moon formed more than 4.5 billion years ago.

 

The remains of a liquid core could suggest that Mars once had a magnetic field, which would have protected it from harmful solar winds billions of years ago at a time when the planet was warmer and wetter and might have been capable of harbouring early life.

 

The UK Space Agency has invested £4 million in the probe's short period seismometer (SEIS-SP).

 

The British team, led by Professor Tom Pike at Imperial, said: "We should be listening for Marsquakes for at least two years, and we hope considerably longer.

 

"It is critical that we set down the instrument in the best place to ensure we're stable, and then follow up with adding a cover to shield our sensors from the wind."

 

Colleague Dr Neil Bowles, from Oxford University's Department of Physics, said: "The InSight SEIS-SP seismometer is one of the most sensitive and challenging instruments we have worked on for spaceflight in Oxford."

 

Only around four in 10 missions ever sent to the Red Planet have been successful - and they have all been US spacecraft.

 

The European spacecraft Schiaparelli smashed into the planet in 2016 after switching off its retro-rockets too early, scientists believe.

 

It was testing the landing system for a British-built rover to be launched on the second phase of the ExoMars mission in 2020.

 

Source: www.telegraph.co.uk


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