Nasa's Mars spacecraft lands an out-of-this-world selfie

A photo from Nasa showing the first full selfie taken by its spacecraft InSight on Mars. It displays the lander's solar panels and deck. On top of the deck are its science instruments, weather sensor booms and antenna.
A photo from Nasa showing the first full selfie taken by its spacecraft InSight on Mars. It displays the lander's solar panels and deck. On top of the deck are its science instruments, weather sensor booms and antenna.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

The United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration's InSight lander is not camera-shy.

The spacecraft has used a camera on its robotic arm to take its first selfie - a mosaic made up of 11 images.

This is the same imaging process used by Nasa's Curiosity rover mission, in which many overlapping pictures are taken and later stitched together.

Visible in the selfie are the lander's solar panel and its entire deck, including its science instruments.

Mission team members have also received their first complete look at InSight's "workspace" - the approximately 4m-by-2m crescent of terrain directly in front of the spacecraft.

This image is also a mosaic composed of 52 individual photos.

InSight, a waist-high unmanned lander, touched down on Mars last month, capping a nearly seven-year journey from design to launch to landing. The US$993 million (S$1.4 billion) spacecraft - designed to listen for quakes and tremors as a way to unveil the Red Planet's inner mysteries, how it formed billions of years ago and, by extension, how other rocky planets like Earth took shape - marked the eighth successful landing on Mars in Nasa's history.

In the coming weeks, scientists and engineers will go through the painstaking process of deciding where in this workspace the spacecraft's instruments should be placed.

They will then command InSight's robotic arm to carefully set the seismometer and heat-flow probe in the chosen locations. Both work best on level ground, and engineers want to avoid setting them on rocks larger than about 1.3cm.

"The near-absence of rocks, hills and holes means it'll be extremely safe for our instruments," said InSight's principal investigator Bruce Banerdt of Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

"This might seem like a pretty plain piece of ground if it weren't on Mars, but we're glad to see that."

InSight's landing team deliberately chose a landing region in Elysium Planitia that is relatively free of rocks.

Even so, the landing spot turned out even better than they hoped. The spacecraft sits in what appears to be a nearly rock-free "hollow" - a depression created by a meteor impact that later filled with sand.

That should make it easier for one of InSight's instruments, the heat-flow probe, to bore down to its goal of 5m below the surface.

InSight sensors have also captured a haunting low rumble caused by vibrations from the wind, estimated to be blowing between 5m and 7m a second, on Dec 1.

NATIONAL AERONAUTICS AND SPACE ADMINISTRATION

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 15, 2018, with the headline 'Nasa's Mars spacecraft lands an out-of-this-world selfie'. Print Edition | Subscribe