TOUCHDOWN TUCSON: UA lab played big role in Mars landing

TOUCHDOWN TUCSON: UA labs played big role in Mars landing

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - It was a culmination of five years' worth of work for Cecilia Leung and a beautiful sight to see.

"For me, there were a lot of things riding on the line," said the former University of Arizona graduate student.

As a current team member on the NASA InSight Mission program, she and her team were tasked with absorbing as much information as they could on Mars' atmosphere to answer the tough questions.

"What's the environment going to be like, to tell the engineers on the team, 'These are going to be the conditions you might expect,' so we can land safely," Leung said.

On Monday, Nov. 26, flight controllers announced that the spacecraft InSight touched down, after a supersonic descent through the Martian skies.

"Just imagine the years of work that has been put, as well as all the other team members' work, has been put into these few minutes," Leung said. "Seeing the success of the mission really made all of that worth it."

The NASA InSight controllers called all the right shots for a successful landing, on a landing spot scouted out by Dr. Veronica Bray and her team at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.

Bray is a targeting specialist for HiRISE or High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, the most powerful camera ever sent to another planet and one of six instruments onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Its mission operations are housed on the UA campus.

HiRISE and the University of Arizona imaged the landing sites, so that the InSight team could choose an appropriate one, Dr. Bray explained to Tucson News Now.

"We can see small rocks - well, large rocks. And when you have a lander, you want your landing site to be as boring as possible," Bray said. "Plain, free of rocks if you can."

HiRISE then imaged the parachute on the way down on Monday to check that it deployed correctly. It’s an ongoing joint science between the InSight and HiRISE teams so that they can look for new impacts and local landslides that would provide InSight with a signal, she explained.

Images depicting a safe landing spot were scouted weeks ago, yet they still made for tense moments for the two women as they watched the mission control room feed in Pasadena, California, from Tucson.

"Even though I thought there's no point being nervous, once you get into that countdown phase it's suddenly really nerve-wracking. You've got the butterflies," Dr. Bray said.

This experiment will be the first-of-its-kind, giving a look at Mars below its surface.

"We'll be able to understand the sizes of which these planets form, as well as heat flow," Leung explained.

Apart from the moon and the earth, Mars is the only body that a seismometer, that measures ground motions, has been placed onto.

"I'm involved with a lot of space missions that look at the surface of planets. We can kind of scratch into what's going on there. We have a lot of landed assets and orbiters around Mars that give us the images. But this is the first time we're going to get to look inside Mars," Dr. Bray said. "Like, is the core solid then liquid? We don't think that's the case or there would be a magnetic field. So we think the outer core has solidified. But we might be wrong and this is the instrument that can tell us that."

The planetary know-how gained from InSight’s two-year operation could even spill over to rocky worlds beyond our solar system, according to Bruce Banerdt, InSight's Principal Investigator. The findings on Mars could help explain the type of conditions at these so-called exoplanets “and how they fit into the story that we’re trying to figure out for how planets form,” he said.

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