Saturday , February 27 2021

NASA Landing On Mars: Australia's Role

Miles from the tearful hugs and bursts of applause in California, a team of Australians were busy holding their breath.

Glen Nagle was tingling with goosebumps as a controller at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory counted down the descent of NASA's InSight spacecraft on Martian soil – from 50 meters, to 20, to 10 …. then, at last, touchdown.

"You're just holding your breath through the entire descent and landing that is all out of your control, half a billion kilometers away," he told 10 daily.

Nagle works at the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex, one of three stations across the world that provides the vital communication link to dozens of spacecraft across the solar system – including NASA's InSight that at about 7am on Tuesday morning AEST successfully landed on Mars.

Engineers from the flight team react at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory as the InSight spacecraft mission makes its successful landing on the planet Mars. Image: AAP

It was a monumental morning – and a particularly early one for Australia's Astronomer-at-Large Fred Watson.

He has been in the very room in Pasadena where engineers received signals confirming InSight's arrival.

The feeling is palpable, and Watson – like many across the world – did not want to miss a beat.

"I'm still recovering," he told 10 daily.

InSight touched down on the Red Planet after a 548 million-kilometer, six-month journey through deep space.

"We hit the Martian atmosphere at 19,800 kilometers per hour, and the whole sequence to touching down on the surface took only six-and-a-half minutes," said InSight project manager Tom Hoffman at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The lander was built off a previous spacecraft, called Phoenix, born out a previous mission that attempted landing on Mars.

READ MORE: Touchdown! NASA Insight Has Landed On Mars

"This was, in a way a pre-proven technology. But you're never certain. Mars can be cruel, but on this occasion, it was kind," said Nagle.

Within minutes, there was a photo from the surface showing a "beautiful, flat terrain", with the camera lens cap still on and covered in dust.

The first image acquired by the InSight Mars lander after it touched down on the surface of Mars. Image: NASA

An hour later there was this, from one of two briefcase-sized 'Cubesats' that flew along with InSight to relay signals back to Earth.

"They worked perfectly," Nagle said, of what he hopes will one day form an "interplanetary internet" to relay signals back from aircraft across the solar system.

And that's only the beginning of a two-year long mission that will study Mars' deep interior, detecting so-called marsquakes and meteor impacts to unlock the planet's secrets below the surface.

Right now, Nagle and his team of operators in Canberra are in control of the Deep Space Network relaying commands to and from InSight.

"At the moment, they are doing checkups on the spacecraft, deploying solar panels and making sure the instruments are working okay, "he said.

Canberra will be in control until about 6pm on Tuesday, as each station across Australia, Spain and the US takes it turn.

Over the next day or two, Nagle expects more images coming back from InSight as the dust cover is released and a robotic arm is used to capture a 360-degree view of the surface.

"There's a lot more to happen at Mars, not only with InSight, but the other missions that are currently there," he said.

An image on Mars acquired by InSight using its robotic arm-mounted, Instrument Deployment Camera (IDC). Image: NASA

Relayed data will then be distributed to scientists across the planet, including Dr Katarina Milijkovic, the only Australian researcher involved in the mission.

Working with two PhD students at the newly formed Space Science and Technology Center at Curtin University, she'll analyze data collected by the robotic lander to study the crust and interior of Mars, including detecting seismic activity or 'marsquakes'.

"We live in an amazing time to be working in space exploration," she said.

"With active involvement by space agencies around the world as well as this new momentum coming from private industries, the space sector is only going to grow.

'It's a very exciting time to be alive '

Watson, who is Australia's newly-appointed and first ever astronomer-at-large, agrees.

"With the initiation of the Australian space agency, we found a real positive attitude among the universities and industry in capitalizing on this – to move along with this obvious enthusiasm for space-based science," Watson said.

For years, he has watched the world space programs with terrific enthusiasm.

Things have taken an "interesting turn" since the 1960s, when he was working on a spacecraft in a laboratory as Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the moon.

"All my colleagues were consumed by the idea that from the moon, there would be stepping stones to other planets and we'd be wandering all over the solar system by the turn of the century," he said.

"We are, but we're doing so robotically."

Since then, Watson has lived his life in "a state of constant excitement".

"There are discoveries that are bound to come up – not just looking for life, but in the physics of the universe … things that we do not understand now but in a few years, maybe we will."

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Lead image: NASA via AAP

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