NASA’s InSight Spacecraft Lands Safely on Mars

NASA's InSight Spacecraft Lands Safely on Mars

For the eighth time ever, humanity has achieved one of the toughest tasks in the solar system: landing a spacecraft on Mars.

The InSight lander, operated by NASA and built by scientists in the United States, France and Germany, touched down in the vast, red expanse of Mars’ Elysium Planitia just before 3pm¬†Eastern Monday

There it will operate for the next two Earth years, deploying a seismometer, a heat sensor and radio antenna to probe the Red Planet’s interior. Scientists hope that InSight will uncover signs of tectonic activity and clues about the planet’s past. Those findings could illuminate how Mars became the desolate desert world we see today.

Mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, erupted in laughter, applause, hugs and tears as soon as the lander touched down.

“That was awesome,” one woman said, wiping her eyes and clasping her colleague’s hand. A few minutes later, a splotchy red and brown image appeared on the control room’s main screen – InSight’s first photograph from its new home.

It was NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine’s first landing as head of the agency.

“This was an amazing, amazing day,” he said at a news conference Monday afternoon. “To be in the room when the data stops and to know how quiet it gets … and then once the data comes back, the elation.”

Principal investigator Bruce Banerdt began his career as an intern at JPL on the Viking mission, the first successful Mars landing. Seeing the initial grainy image from InSight felt like “coming full circle,” he said. It was an early glimpse at a place on the brink of being explored.

Through the debris covering its camera’s dust cover, InSight captured a small rock (not expected to cause any problems for the science) and the edge of its own foot. Off in the distance, Mars’ horizon looms.

“This thing has a lot more to do,” said entry, descent and landing systems engineer Rob Grover. “But just getting to the surface of Mars is no mean feat.”

The interminable stretch from the moment a spacecraft hits the Martian atmosphere to the second it touches down on the Red Planet’s rusty surface is what scientists call “the seven minutes of terror.”

More than half of all missions don’t make it safely to the surface. Because it takes more than seven minutes for light signals to travel 100 million miles to Earth, scientists have no control over the process. All they can do is program the spacecraft with their best technology and wait.

“Every milestone is something that happened 8 minutes ago,” Bridenstine said. “It’s already history.”

The tension was palpable Monday morning in the control room at JPL, where InSight was built and will be operated. At watch parties around the globe – NASA’s headquarters in Washington, the Nasdaq tower in Times Square, the grand hall of the Museum of Sciences and Industry in Paris, a public library in Haines, Alaska, – legs jiggled and fingers were crossed as minutes ticked toward the beginning of entry, descent and landing.

At about 11:47am, engineers received a signal indicating that InSight had entered the Martian atmosphere. The spacecraft plummeted to the planet’s surface at a pace of 12,300 mph. Within two minutes, the friction roasted InSight’s heat shield to a blistering 2,700 degrees.

Grover released a deep breath: “That’s hot.”

In another two minutes, a supersonic parachute deployed to help slow down the spacecraft. Radar was powered on.

From there, the most critical descent checklist unfolded at a rapid clip: 15 seconds to separate the heat shield. Ten seconds to deploy the legs. Activate the radar. Jettison the back shell. Fire the retrorockets. Orient for landing.

One of the engineers leaned toward her computer, hands clasped in front of her face, elbows on her desk.

“400 meters,” came a voice over the radio at mission control. “300 meters. 80 meters. 30 meters. Constant velocity.”

Engineer Kris Bruvold’s eyes widened. His mouth opened in an “o.” He bounced in his seat.

“Touchdown confirmed.”

Bruvold grinned and threw his hands in the air. Others leaped from their chairs.

Grover let out a relieved chuckle: “Wow, this never gets old.”

Finally, at 12:01 p.m., scientists heard a tiny X-band radio beep – a signal that InSight is active and functioning on the Red Planet.

“Flawless,” Grover said. “Flawless. This is what we really hoped and imagined in our minds eye.

Vice President Mike Pence was among the anxious watchers, Bridenstine said; he called the administrator to congratulate NASA minutes after InSight’s successful landing.

The mission’s objective is to determine what Mars is made of and how it has changed since it formed more than 4 billion years ago. The results could help solve the mystery of how the Red Planet became the dry, desolate world we know it as today.

Early in its history, Mars may have looked a lot like Earth. Magnetization in ancient rocks suggest it had a global magnetic field like that of Earth, powered by a churning mantle and metallic core. The field would have protected the planet from radiation, allowing it to hold on to an atmosphere much thicker than the one that exists now. This, in turn, likely enabled liquid water to pool on Mars’s surface. Images from satellites reveal the outlines of long-gone lakes, deltas and river-carved canyons.

But the last 3 billion years have been a slow-motion disaster for the Red Planet. The dynamo died, the magnetic field faltered, the water evaporated and more than half of the atmosphere was stripped away by solar winds. The InSight mission was designed to find out why.

There is no orbiting spacecraft in the right position around Mars to relay real time information about InSight’s entry descent and landing back to Earth. But as InSight makes its precarious descent, NASA hoped to learn about its status via the MarCo satellites – tiny twin experimental spacecraft known as CubeSats that accompanied the lander on its flight to Mars. Each has solar arrays, a color camera and an antenna for relaying communications from the Martian surface back to Earth.

About 10 minutes before landing, the control room at JPL erupted in applause – both MarCo satellites were working.

“That means the team now can watch the data flowing onto their screens,” said Grover.

Without MarCo, NASA would have had to wait several hours for the details of InSight’s fate. Their success during this mission may provide “a possible model for a new kind of interplanetary communications relay,” systems engineer Anne Marinan said in a NASA news release last week.

The two tiny spacecraft will continue in their sun-centered orbit, and the MarCo team is discussing with NASA options for further projects for the mission.

NASA should know whether the lander’s solar arrays have deployed by Monday evening, thanks to recordings from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The agency also will get its first clear images of the spacecraft’s landing site – a vast, flat, almost featureless plain near the equator.

“I’m incredibly happy to be in a very safe and boring landing location,” said project manager Tom Hoffman.

Unlike Opportunity and Curiosity, the rovers that trundle across Mars in search of interesting rocks, InSight is designed to sit and listen. Using its dome-shaped seismic sensor, scientists hope to detect tiny tremors associated with meteorite impacts, dust stormperhaps s and “marsquakes” generated by the cooling of the planet’s interior. As seismic waves ripple through, they will be distorted by changes in the materials they encounter – plumes of molten rock or reservoirs of liquid water – revealing what’s under the planet’s surface.

InSight’s seismometer is so sensitive it can detect tremors smaller than a hydrogen atom. But it also must be robust enough to survive the perilous process of landing. Nothing like it has been deployed on any planet, even Earth.

Designing this instrument, said principal investigator Philippe Lognonn√©, “was not only a technical adventure, but a human adventure.”

InSight also has a drill capable of burrowing 16 feet – deeper than any Mars instrument. From there, it can take Mars’s temperature to determine how much heat is still flowing out of the body of the planet. Meanwhile, two antennae will precisely track the lander’s location to determine how much Mars wobbles as it orbits the sun.

It will take two to three months for InSight to start conducting science, explained Elizabeth Barrett, science system engineer for the mission.

This is the first time NASA has used a robotic arm to place instruments on the surface of Mars, and the agency wants to be careful. There is no option to send a technician in for repairs if something goes wrong.

“I liken it to playing that claw game at a fairground, but with a very very valuable prize … and you’re doing blindfolded and remotely from 300 million miles away,” Barret said.

But the insights eventually gleaned from InSight won’t only add to what we know about Mars; they could provide clues to things that happened on Earth billions of years ago. Most records of Earth’s early history have been lost to the inexorable churn of plate tectonics, explained Suzanne Smrekar, the mission’s deputy principal investigator.

“Mars gives us an opportunity to see the materials, the structure, the chemical reactions that are close to what we see in the interior of Earth, but it’s preserved,” she said. “It gives us a chance to go back in time.”

Bridenstine said Monday that information from InSight may guide a potential crewed mission to Mars by providing information about Mars’ water, the risk of asteroid impacts, and resources that could potentially be utilized by human explorers.

“The more we learn, the more we’re able to achieve,” he said.

[“source=ndtv”]

Trump to review power to establish federal lands

Washington (CNN)President Donald Trump will order a review of the 1906 law that gives the president of the United States power to set aside lands for federal protection, administration officials tell CNN, setting into motion a process that could see the Trump administration rescind the protection of lands designated by former President Barack Obama.

Trump will sign the executive order Wednesday at the Interior Department, Secretary Ryan Zinke told reporters. The order could lead to the reshaping of roughly 30 national monuments that were designated by Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama after 1996.
At the heart of this proposal is Bears Ears National Monument, a 1.3-million-acre parcel of lands that includes world-class rock climbing, age-old cliff dwellings and land sacred to Pueblo Indians that Obama designated a monument in 2016.
Zinke said Tuesday in a briefing with reporters that he will make a recommendation on the contested parcel of land in 45 days and later provided Trump will a fuller report.
“We feel that the public, the people that monuments affect, should be considered and that is why the President is asking for a review of the monuments designated in the last 20 years,” Zinke said, adding that he believes the review is “long overdue.”
Utah Republicans, angry that Obama designated the land for federal protection, have called on the Trump administration to remove the protection and give the parcel back to the deep red state — possibly to authorize drilling. But that action has been met with vocal opposition from environmental groups, outdoor outfitters and Native American tribes, who argue federal protection is not only better for the environment, but better for the economy in a rural, economically depressed area of the Beehive State.
“The policy is consistent with the President Trump’s promise to give American’s a voice and make sure their voices are heard,” the interior secretary added, arguing that the order “restores the trust between local communities and Washington” and lets rural America know “states will have a voice” in land designation.
That argument is largely dismissed by the White House.
“Past administrations have overused this power and designated large swaths of land well beyond the areas in need of protection,” a White House official said Tuesday. “The Antiquities Act Executive Order directs the Department of the Interior to review prior monument designations and suggest legislative changes or modifications to the monument proclamations.”
The move by Trump will not resolve the Bears Ears issue. Instead, it will set up a process to review the designation and make a decision at a later date. But groups that support keeping Bears Ears in federal control believe the Trump administration’s decision, led by Zinke, is the first step in the process to give the land back to Utah.
Rose Marcario, president and CEO of the outdoor outfitter Patagonia, said the review “is an assault on America’s most treasured lands and oceans.”
“Bears Ears and other national monuments were designated after significant community input because they are a critical part of our national heritage and have exceptional ecological characteristics worth protecting for future generations,” Marcario said. “It’s extremely disturbing to see the Trump administration apparently laying the groundwork to remove protections on our public lands.”
Zinke said he is prepared for legal challenges from environmental groups — “I am not in fear of getting sued, I get sued all the time,” he said — but acknowledged that it is “untested” whether the President has the power to shrink public lands by using the Antiquities Act.
And there are likely to be legal challenges. Marcario told CNN Patagonia was “preparing to take every step necessary, including possible legal action” in order to protect Bears Ears and other national monuments.
Republicans in Utah, including Gov. Gary Herbert, have asked the Trump administration to rescind the National Monument status for Bear Ears, arguing the designation infringes on their state’s rights. Herbert signed a resolution in February that urged Trump to rescind Bear Ears’ status.
Led by Utah Reps. Jason Chaffetz and Chris Stewart in Washington, along with Sen. Orrin Hatch, Republicans are urging Congress to withhold money for the national monument in response to the designation.
Mining companies have also been eager for a decision. EOG Resources, a Texas-based company, was recently approved to drill near Bears Ears. And activists are worried that the area, which is rich in natural resources, could be offered up to oil companies if it is de-listed.
Hatch said in response to Trump’s forthcoming order that he is “committed to rolling back the egregious abuse of the Antiquities Act to serve far-left special interests.”
Hatch’s opponents argue that withholding funds or rescinding the Antiquities Act order would impact San Juan County, Utah, where more than 28% of the population lives below the poverty level.
The group Public Land Solutions, a pro-federal designation group, said in a recent report that the economic benefits of Bears Ears to the area should outweigh any benefits with mineral or oil extraction.
“Show me the money,” said Ashley Korenblat from Public Land Solutions. “We are confident that a fact-based review of the national parks and public lands protected as monuments by the Antiquities Act will show year-over-year economic growth.”
Bears Ears is not the only site that has experienced a push to give up federal protection.
Republicans in Maine, including Gov. Paul LePage, have asked Trump to stop national monument status for Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, an expansive piece of land that includes much of the Penobscot River watershed. Like Bears Ears, that parcel was designated a national monument by Obama in 2016.
The order will review any monument created between Grand Staircase Escalante in September 1996 to Bears Ears in 2016 that impact more than 100,000 acres or more. Under this designation, Katahdin Woods and Waters — an expansive piece of land in Maine that includes much of the Penobscot River watershed that was enacted by Obama in 2016 — would not be reviewed, despite the calls.
The monuments the Trump administration will review include Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Basin and Range National Monument, as well as a host of Pacific Ocean monuments, including the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument. All but one of the monuments set to be reviewed is west of the Mississippi.
Should Trump and his administration opt to de-list these sites, they would be going back on some off their promises to both voters and members of Congress who oversaw Zinke’s confirmation process.
“I don’t like the idea because I want to keep the lands great,” Trump said in January 2015 during an interview with Field & Stream when asked about transferring public lands to state control. Donald Trump, Jr. has also said he is in favor of “refunding” federal lands to keep them out of private control.
Those views aren’t in line with much Republican orthodoxy, which has long said the federal government should control less land, not more.
But Trump isn’t the only Republican who expressed this view: Zinke also told senators during his confirmation process that he was against giving public lands back to the states.
“I am absolutely against transfer and sale of public lands. I can’t be more clear,” he said when Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat, asked if, under Trump, federal land would be “unbelievable attack by those who would like to take these public lands away from us and turn them over back to states.”
Zinke stood by that statement Tuesday, arguing that it is wrong to suggest the review will lead to the transfer of public lands.
“I think that argument is false,” he said, blaming “modern media” for the polarized views on Bears Ears.
Cantwell said Tuesday that Trump’s decision to de-list would be “illegal” and faulted Zinke and others for doing the “bidding” for coal and natural resource companies.
[“Source-cnn”]