Saturday , January 23 2021

New Mars Pictures Show NASA's InSight, grounded in an absolutely glorious place

It's been 11 days since InSight made its perfect landing on Mars. The bright new photos taken from the landing site finally give the controllers a sense of the landscape around the stationary probe and the early signs are very positive.

After six years of planning, $ 814 million ($ 1126) million in development costs and a successful 480 million mile trip to Mars, the key to NASA is now to be patient.

InSight landed on Elysium Planitia, a flat plain lying north of the Mars equator, on November 26, which already looks like eternity before. From the probe we are still not witnesses, except dusty photography made during the landing, and a clear but moderate image of the immediate surroundings of the probe.

We are finally at a stage where mission operators can begin to deploy very slowly and methodically the various instruments of the probe, including a 2-meter hand. The robotic device seems to function normally, as does the instrument mount camera attached to its elbow.

In the end, the hand will be used to collect scientific instruments from the InSight deck by carefully leaving them on the surface of Mars. Once the mission is complete, this tool will be the first robotic arm that will move the instruments to the surface of another planet, including a seismometer and a heat flux probe.

For now, the InSight In-Camera Tool is being used to take snapshots of the field around the device. And a boy, the probe has once arrived in a sweet spot. Just look at this picture:

"Today we can see the first eyes of our workspace," said Bruce Banner, NASA mission chief investigator. "By the beginning of next week we will introduce it in finer detail and create a complete mosaic."

In fact, more images will be needed to describe the full picture of InSight's new excavations, but this place looks incredible – especially for a probe designed to break through the surface of Mars. Photographs made by the probe show a relatively flat, dusty surface without stones.

There was always a concern that the probe could land on a large, partially buried rock. Imagine, for example, whether InSight has landed on one of these stones on the horizon, as shown below.

InSight has another imaging tool – the Contextual Camera Tool that will look on the ground just around and below the landing deck. The photos produced by this camera will not be so beautiful, but will serve a utilitarian function. Unfortunately, despite the dangerous cover of the tool container, the powder somehow managed to get into the lens, according to NASA.

"We had a protective coating on the toolbox, but somehow the dust still managed to handle the lens," said Tom Hoffman, chief engineer at the NASA engine, JPL. "While this is unfortunate, it will not affect the role of the camera, which is to take pictures of the area in front of the land where our tools will eventually be placed."

NASA says InSight tools may not be fully positioned and calibrated for another 30 to 60 days. One of these tools, the "Additional Load Sensor" subsystem, will eventually collect important meteorological data such as wind speed and air temperature. That said, the probe pressure sensor seems to work and a sudden drop in air pressure is already established, which is a sign of passing dirty dust, NASA said.

In fact, NASA deliberately accepts it slowly, as planned. For example, InSight is equipped with a feature in which any unexpected readout will automatically cause an "error". When this happens, the probe will immediately stop the operations and wait for the operators to assess the situation and take the next steps.

One of the reasons for this is related to the delay; given the huge distance between Earth and Mars, the instructions to reach the probe take about 12.5 minutes, so NASA operators can not run in real time. NASA says an error has already begun, delaying the first batch of images to be delivered to Earth last weekend.

"We did a lot of Earth tests, but we know that everything is a little different for Mars, so mistakes are not unusual," Hoffman said. "They can slow operations, but we're in a hurry, we want to make sure that every operation we perform on Mars is safe, so we've determined our safety monitors are pretty sensitive initially."

Indeed, there is enough time and NASA can afford to be patient. The InSight mission is scheduled to last for two years. As things begin to develop, let's enjoy these remarkable images taken from the surface of a foreign world.


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