Just before noon on Monday, all the people in the Theodore von Kármán Auditorium at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of NASA (JPL) in California sat on the cusps of their seats. They looked directly at a video screen that showed a live view from the control center of the JPL mission. On the screen, rows of engineers were also sitting, paralyzed by the consoles of their computers, while a flight controller announced the altitude measurements through an intercom.
"Altitude 400 meters. 300 meters. 200 meters. 80 meters. 60 meters. "
And then, a few moments later, the final call: "Confirmation of confirmed contact".
Immediately, the engineers and the audience erupted in shouts and applause. In jubilation, many threw their hands in the air or threw their arms around their colleagues. Some had come prepared with elaborate festive handshake routines. It was the result everyone expected: the last NASA spacecraft had landed successfully on the surface of Mars, and apparently had descended in one piece.
Everyone in the von Kármán Auditorium had gathered to see how this module, called InSight, reached its final destination. Unlike some of its predecessors, InSight will not travel across the planet's surface. Its mission is relatively simple: to sit on Mars and listen to earthquakes. The seismic waves of these oscillations will help planetary scientists decipher the structure of the interior of Mars, similar to how ultrasounds show us what is inside a person's body.
But it has been a long way to get to this point. InSight has been in development for the last decade at Lockheed Martin and JPL, and suffered an additional delay of two years after engineers found a defect in one of its main instruments. The problem was ultimately solved and culminated with the launch of the lander in May. Then, the vehicle traveled through space for the past six and a half months, so it could plunge into the atmosphere of Mars on Monday.
Members of the press, planetary scientists, engineers, influential people on social media and even some celebrities started broadcasting JPL early Monday morning to "see" the landing live, although we all knew that we really would not. watch The event – at least not visually. There are no cameras on Mars to record spaceships that arrive for landings. And neither would it really be live. At this time, a light signal takes more than eight minutes to reach Earth from Mars. So, actually, we've all come to hear that the landing had been successful from the mission team eight minutes after the landing actually happened.
But despite not having real-time landing footage, JPL had something worthwhile: many and many scientists on the sunny government campus. Those in the InSight team can be easily seen, thanks to their brown shirts that match the InSight mission logo. And they all vibrated with a mixture of elation and anxiety. Some of the scientists, including the principal investigator of the landing module, Bruce Banerdt, have been working on some form of this mission for decades, waiting for this day. But a landing on Mars is always a terrifying prospect, with the fear of a crash that hangs heavily in the air.
That's because landing anything on Mars is the worst. Compared to spacecraft that land on Earth or the Moon, Mars is considered "the worst of the two worlds." Unlike the Moon, Mars has an atmosphere that causes ships to warm up to intense temperatures on the way to the ground, which makes shielding a requirement. And while this atmosphere helps slow down vehicles, the air is still quite thin, about 1 percent of the density of the Earth's atmosphere, so it does not slow down spacecraft. enough. A parachute alone will not cut it, and thrusters are usually also needed to lower a vehicle smoothly. The heavier a spacecraft is, the harder it is to land on Mars.
Fortunately, InSight is a relatively lightweight spacecraft of only 789 pounds, and NASA has decades of success in putting even larger-sized vehicles intact on the surface of Mars. The InSight team designed the landing module to perform a complicated landing routine that must be completed in just six and a half minutes. But even with years of preparation, sometimes Mars can bring out the best in a spaceship.
In the hours before landing, InSight scientists spoke with curious visitors about what to expect. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine was also present, making rounds of conversations in the camera while standing in front of a large-scale model of the InSight landing vehicle. At this point, talking was all they could to keep busy. InSight was more or less on autopilot. The last commands were sent to the lander, and the team could only hope that their hard work was worth it.
As the scheduled landing approached, everyone at JPL began to crawl to the different places where they had to be. The InSight team took their place in the control of the mission, while I and other members of the media gathered in the von Kármán Auditorium to watch a live broadcast of the engineers. If everything went according to plan, we would get a countdown to the landing. Along with InSight, NASA launched two tiny satellites called MarCO that will attempt to send landing data when it happened. However, the MarCO probes were experimental, so it was not a guarantee that we had news of them.
In the minutes before landing, we heard a hopeful phrase of control of the mission: "MarCO Bravo has closed with the operator. MarCO Alpha has also blocked the airline. " The control of the mission exploded in applause. I exchanged some smiles with other space reporters in the room. "That's a good sign!" I said, surprised. The MarCO satellites were receiving signals from InSight, and that meant we would know how all the steps of the landing process would go, which is a luxury that the Mars missions went through that they did not have.
From that moment on, it was a smooth march, for InSight and for us in the auditorium. Thanks to the MarCO satellites, we had confirmation of each important event. When InSight unfolded its parachute, the room applauded. When he got stuck on the ground with a radar, everyone applauded. And then, when I was a few meters from the surface, everyone held their breath until we received the final call.
Hours later, the same Von Kármán auditorium was filled with InSight team members, press and fans. The senior scientist and InSight project manager, Tom Hoffman, entered, hands raised in triumph, as the audience applauded and applauded. Hoffman thanked all the scientists and engineers in the room who worked countless hours to make possible a landing of six and a half minutes. "You were working on Thanksgiving, but not just on Thanksgiving," he said. "You've missed many different holidays and important events to make this a success, and today, everything was worth it."