8 minutes tense and then good news for the UBC planetary scientist involved in the landing on Mars


By eight minutes on Monday afternoon, a crowd at a British Columbia University gallery watched in ecstatic silence as a live broadcast transmitted a NASA spacecraft down to Mars.

The stakes were especially high for one of the spectators: Catherine Johnson, a UBC planetary scientist who is the only Canadian involved in the mission.

"Eight minutes of nail-biting and then fortunately good news," she said Monday at CBC On the coast, just a few hours after the three-legged InSight lander lands on the red planet.

The spacecraft, designed to dig beneath the surface of Mars, landed on Monday after a 482 million-mile journey and a dangerous six-minute descent through the pink atmosphere.

Flight controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., Jumped out of their seats and exploded in shouts, applause, and laughter when word came that the InSight module landed on the red planet.

"Impeccable," said JPL chief engineer Rob Manning. "This is what we really expected and imagined in our mind," he said. "Sometimes things work in your favor."

Traveling to the NASA lab

In Vancouver, the landing resulted in five years of preparation for Johnson and his team. But their work has just begun.

Johnson's team is studying marsquakes, including where they happen, to discover active flaws. He is also looking at the water content of the rocks to shed light on the history of water on the planet.

Johnson is traveling Wednesday to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Catherine Johnson and her team spent five years preparing for the Mars mission. (Catherine Johnson / UBC)

The plan is to power a magnetometer on Thursday to measure the planet's magnetic field, Johnson said. It will use this data to better understand the properties of the planet's atmosphere.

"I'm excited to have a good view of the interior," she said. "To learn about where and when earthquakes occur, how big they are, how many exist and where they are."

She added: "It is a great and great mission for the planetary scientific community."

Listen to the full interview with Johnson below:

Catherine Johnson is a UBC planetary scientist who is the only Canadian involved in NASA's latest mission to Mars. 7:19

What relief?

Throughout North America, live exhibitions were held at museums, planetariums and libraries, as well as Times Square in New York.

A pair of mini satellites that tracked InSight since its launch in May provided virtually real-time updates of the spacecraft's supersonic descent through the reddish skies. The satellite also fired a snapshot of the surface of Mars.

The image was marked by dirt particles on the camera cover. But that quick glance in the view showed a flat, sandy surface with few or no rock-exactly what the scientists expected. Much better images will arrive in the hours and days ahead.

The first photo was sent back to Earth after lander InSight landed on Mars on Monday: a vision of a flat, smooth expanse on the Red Planet called the Elysium Planitia. (EPA-EFE / NASA)

"What a relief," Manning said. "That's really great." He added, "It never gets old."

The InSight spacecraft reached the surface after moving from 19,800 km / h to zero in six minutes, using a parachute and brake motors to decelerate. Radio signals confirming the landing took more than eight minutes to cross the nearly 160 million miles between Mars and Earth.

It was NASA's ninth attempt to land on Mars since the 1976 Viking spacecraft. All but one of the previous US touchdowns were successful.

NASA finally landed on Mars in 2012 with the Curiosity rover.

The concept of an artist shows the InSight landing module, its sensors, cameras and instruments. After a six-month voyage, the spacecraft landed successfully on Mars on Monday. (NASA / JPL-Caltech)

"Landing on Mars is one of the most difficult jobs people have to do on planetary exploration," said Bruce Banerdt, chief scientist at InSight. "It's such a difficult thing. It's such a dangerous thing that there's always a very uncomfortable chance that something can go wrong."

40% success rate for Mars missions

Mars has been the graveyard for a multitude of space missions. So far, the success rate on the red planet has been only 40%, counting every attempt to fly and orbital landing by the US, Russia and other countries since 1960.

The impression of an artist shows InSight entering the Martian atmosphere, about 128 kilometers above the surface and a few minutes from the landing. (NASA / JPL)

The US, however, has achieved seven successful Mars landings over the past four decades, not counting InSight, with only one failed landing.

No other country has been able to assemble and operate a spaceship on the dusty red surface.

InSight was shooting at the Elysium Planitia, a plain near the Martian equator that the InSight team hopes to be flat as a parking lot in Kansas with few rocks, if any.

This is not a stone collecting expedition. Instead, the 360 ​​kg stationary probe will use its 1.8 meter robotic arm to place a mechanical mole and a seismograph on the ground.

The self-hammered mole will dig five meters below to measure the planet's internal heat, while the seismograph will hear possible earthquakes.

But just putting those instruments in place will take several months, as NASA scientists will first need to assess the health of the spacecraft and the area where it landed.

No ability to detect life

Nothing like this has been tried before on Mars, a planet almost 160 million miles from Earth.

People react as they watch InSight land on Mars from Times Square in New York. (Brendan McDermid / Reuters)

No lander dug more than several centimeters, and no seismometer ever worked on Mars.

By examining the interior of Mars, scientists hope to understand how the rocky planets in our solar system formed 4.5 billion years ago and why they have been so different – Mars, cold and dry, Venus and Mercury, hot and terrestrial, hospitable

"We are trying to go back in time to the early stages of the planet," Banerdt said. "The fingerprints of these early processes are simply not here on Earth."

InSight has no ability to detect life, however. This will be left to future robots. NASA's mission on Mars 2020, for example, will collect rocks that will eventually be brought back to Earth and analyzed for evidence of ancient life.


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