It's been 11 days since InSight made its picture-perfect landing on Mars. Vivid new photos taken from the landing site are finally giving mission controllers a sense of the landscape around the stationary probe — and the early signs are very positive.
After six years of planning, $US814 ($1126) million in development costs, and a successful 480 million kilometre journey to Mars, the key for NASA right now is to exercise patience.
InSight landed at Elysium Planitia, a flat plain located just north of the Martian equator, on November 26, which already seems like an eternity ago. We haven't seen much from the probe yet, aside from a dusty photograph taken during the landing and a neat but subdued image of the probe's immediate surroundings.
We're finally at the stage, however, when the mission operators can start to unfurl, very slowly and methodically, the probe's various instruments, including its 2m arm. The robotic appendage appears to be functioning normally, as does the Instrument Deployment Camera attached to its elbow.
Eventually, the arm will be used to pick up science instruments from InSight's deck, gently setting them down on the Martian surface. Once the mission is fully up-and-running, this tool will be the first robotic arm to shove instruments into the surface of another planet, including a seismometer and a heat flow probe.
For now, InSight's Instrument Deployment Camera is being used to take photos of the terrain around the lander. And boy, did the probe ever land on a sweet spot. Just take a look at this picture:
"Today we can see the first glimpses of our workspace," Bruce Banerdt, the mission's principal investigator at NASA, said in a statement. "By early next week, we'll be imaging it in finer detail and creating a full mosaic."
Indeed, more images will be required to paint a full picture of InSight's new digs, but this place looks amazing — especially for a probe designed to drill through the Martian surface. Photographs taken by the probe show a relatively flat, dusty surface, free of troublesome rocks.
There was always the concern that the probe might land on top of a large, partially buried rock. Imagine, for example, if InSight had landed atop one of those boulders on the horizon, as pictured below.
InSight has another imaging tool, the Instrument Context Camera, which will gaze at the terrain immediately around and beneath the lander's deck. Photos produced by this camera won't be nearly as pretty, but they'll serve a utilitarian function. Unfortunately, and despite a protective cover on the Instrument Context Camera, dust somehow managed to get into the lens, according to NASA.
"We had a protective cover on the Instrument Context Camera, but somehow dust still managed to get onto the lens," said InSight project manager Tom Hoffman of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). "While this is unfortunate, it will not affect the role of the camera, which is to take images of the area in front of the lander where our instruments will eventually be placed."
NASA says InSight's instruments may not be fully positioned and calibrated for another 30 to 60 days. One of these instruments, the Auxiliary Payload Sensor Subsystem, will eventually collect vital meteorological data, such as wind speed and air temperature. That said, the probe's pressure sensor appears to be working, and it's already detected a sudden drop in air pressure, a possible sign of a passing dust devil, said NASA.
BREAKING: Humans have never before heard the sound of wind on Mars until now! Listen to #SoundsOfMars as recorded by @NASAInSight as Martian winds swept over our lander. Best with headphones or a subwoofer. https://t.co/VreQxcAnAM pic.twitter.com/yd98NgZgR3
— Jim Bridenstine (@JimBridenstine) December 7, 2018
Indeed, NASA is deliberately taking it slow, as per the plan. InSight, for example, is equipped with a feature such that any unexpected reading will automatically trigger a "fault." When this happens, the probe will cease operations immediately, and wait for operators to assess the situation and take the next required steps.
One of the reasons for this is has to do with the time delay; given the tremendous distance between Earth and Mars, it takes about 12.5 minutes for instructions to reach the probe, so NASA operators can't work in real-time. NASA says a fault has already been triggered, delaying the first batch of images that were supposed to have been delivered to Earth this past weekend.
"We did extensive testing on Earth. But we know that everything is a little different for the lander on Mars, so faults are not unusual," Hoffman said. "They can delay operations, but we're not in a rush. We want to be sure that each operation that we perform on Mars is safe, so we set our safety monitors to be fairly sensitive initially."
Indeed, there's plenty of time, and NASA can afford to be patient. The InSight mission is scheduled to last for two years. As things get up and running, let's savour these remarkable images taken from the surface of an alien world.