NASA has released astonishing new pictures of Mars after its InSight spacecraft finally removed the lens cover from its cameras and began snapping the clearest images of the Red Planet’s surface yet.
The space agency shared a series of high resolution photos of the rocky Martian terrain.
Also visible in the snapshots were the two tiny chips that carried the names of more than 2million people to the planet.
The lander will soon start photographing the surface directly in front of it to give scientists an idea of where to start drilling.
“We’re ON MARS, you guys,” InSight’s Twitter account posted today. “You’re all honorary Martians.”
The breathtaking quality of the newest InSider pictures are a vast improvement from its first images, which were obscured by dust and protective covers.
Bruce Benerdy, the mission’s principal investigator at NATA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, said: “Today we can see the first glimpse of our workspace.
“By early next week, we’ll be imaging it in finer detail and creating a full mosaic.”
The craft’s robotic arm stretches nearly six feet long and will be used to move science instruments around.
The first images emerged after scientists waited in white-knuckle suspense during the probe’s risky “seven minutes of terror” landing on the Red Planet.
By examining and mapping the interior of Mars, scientists hope to learn why the rocky planets in our solar system turned out so different and why Earth became a haven for life.
Travelling 301 million miles (548 million km) from Earth, the robot’s nearly seven-month voyage ended in a dramatic plunge as it reached the Red Planet at 7.50pm on Monday.
Nasa’s mission control in California erupted with joy after the InSight arrived safely.
The final seven minutes were particularly tense as the craft navigated the thin Martian atmosphere which provides little friction to slow down.
Project manager Tom Hoffman said the spacecraft landed close to the bullseye, but Nasa did not have yet have the final calculations.
He said it was hard to tell from the first photo whether there were any slopes nearby, but it appeared he got the flat, smooth “parking lot” he was hoping for.
Because of the distance between Earth and Mars, it took eight minutes for confirmation to arrive, relayed by a pair of tiny satellites that had been trailing InSight.
The two satellites not only transmitted the good news in almost real time, they also sent back InSight’s first snapshot of Mars just four minutes after landing.
The picture was speckled with dirt because the dust cover was still on the lander’s camera, but the terrain around the spacecraft looked smooth and sandy with just one sizeable rock visible – which was pretty much what scientists had hoped for.
Better photos are expected in the days ahead, after the dust covers come off.
Rob Manning, Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s chief engineer, hailed the successful landing as “flawless. This is what we really hoped and imagined in our mind’s eye. Sometimes things work out in your favour.”
It was Nasa’s – indeed, humanity’s – eighth successful landing at Mars since the 1976 Viking probes, and the first in six years.
Nasa’s Curiosity rover, which arrived in 2012, is still on the move on Mars.
Administrator Jim Bridenstine, presiding over his first landing of the Red Planet as the space agency’s boss, said: “What an amazing day for our country.”
Seven hours after touchdown, the agency reported that InSight’s vital solar panels were open and recharging its batteries.
Over the next few “sols” or Martian days of 24 hours, 39 minutes, flight controllers will also assess the health of InSight’s all-important robot arm and its science instruments.
Three UK-made seismometer instruments are on board the spacecraft, part of a £4million UK Space Agency effort to measure “marsquakes” on the planet.
Sue Horne, head of space Exploration at the UK Space Agency, said: “It is wonderful news that the InSight spacecraft has landed safely on Mars.
“The UK scientists and engineers involved in this mission have committed several years of their lives to building the seismometer on board and the descent is always a worrying time.
“We can now look forward to the deployment of the instrument and the data that will start to arrive in the new year to improve our understanding of how the planet formed.”
The robot will be the first probe which will focus solely on understanding Mars’ interior, right from its core to its crust.
A second instrument will burrow five metres into the ground of Mars, measuring the planet’s temperature, while a third experiment will determine how Mars wobbles on its axis.
InSight’s 77-mile descent to the surface was slowed by atmospheric friction, a giant parachute and retro rockets. When it finally landed 6-1/2 minutes later, it was travelling at a mere 5 mph (8 kmh).
The stationary probe, launched from California in May, then paused for 16 minutes for the dust to settle around the landing site before its disc-shaped solar arrays unfurl to provide power.
The location on the Elysium Planitia area north of its equator has been described as an ideal spot for its flat, rockless surface.
It lies roughtly 373 miles (600 km) from the 2012 landing spot of the car-sized Mars rover Curiosity, the last spacecraft sent to the Red Planet by NASA.
The smaller, 880-pound (360 kg) InSight – its name is short for Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport – marks the 21st U.S.-launched Martian exploration including the Mariner fly-by missions of the 1960s. Nearly two dozen other Mars missions have been sent from other nations.
This two-year £633million mission aims to shine new light on how the Red Planet was formed and its deep structure, by mapping its core, crust and mantle.
To achieve this, the probe is fitted with powerful sensors and equipment to help collect data.
There are solar panels the size of ping-pong tables, and a five-foot robotic arm with grasping fingers.
InSight also has a thermometer nicknamed the “Mole”, which will burrow 16ft down below the Martian surface to take subterranean temperature readings.
The lander is also equipped with wind and heat sensors, which help operate the thermal and wind shields – to protect against damage.
Only 40 per cent of missions to the planet have succeeded and all have been US-led.
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