TEMPE, Ariz — As a roomful of NASA engineers stared at banks of digital data streaming in from deep space, a lone voice called out a persistent progress report.
“Seventeen meters, standing by for touchdown.”
And then the moment they all breathed a collective sigh of relief, “…touchdown confirmed! InSight is on the surface of Mars!”
Years before the hugs, high-fives and tears of success, InSight project managers put a call into Jonathan Hill and his team from the Mars Space Flight Facility at ASU.
Hill and his colleagues operate an incredibly valuable and durable device known as THEMIS, or the Thermal Emission Imaging System.
“InSight wanted a really smooth, really flat, kind of featureless landing site,” Hill said.
Bottom line: Any trip to Mars goes through ASU first.
ASU's THEMIS camera is attached to the Mars Odyssey satellite which circles the red planet 12 times a day at about 200 miles above the Martian surface. It snaps high resolution thermal and visible light images.
Consequently, Hill and his team were able to provide NASA planners the best views in order to plan an always risky maneuver—landing on Earth’s celestial neighbor.
“They wanted to avoid areas with rocks--anything that could tip it over,” Hill cautioned. “The lander only has three legs, so if one of them lands on a rock, it would be very easy for it to tip over,” he added.
The ASU team took about 100 images, stitched them together and produced a massive landing strip for the InSight Mars probe.
“The landing site where it could land is 80 miles long and 20 miles wide,” he said.
Hill and his colleagues were beaming when he saw JPL mission control erupt with joy Monday afternoon.
“This is relief. It's down, it's talking to us, we can see the surface. And as expected, it looks very flat,” Hill said.
Hill said that NASA is not completely done with the ASU THEMIS system on this particular mission. THEMIS will be used to relay the first images from theInSight probe in the coming days.