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Mini-probes fade into the sunset beyond Mars

MarCO view of Mars
This image of Mars was captured by one of NASA’s MarCO satellites from a distance of about 4,700 miles, about 10 minutes after the descent of NASA’s Mars InSight lander on Nov. 26, 2018. The grid seen on the right edge of the image is the spacecraft’s high-gain antenna. (NASA / JPL-Caltech Photo)

Farewell, WALL-E and EVE: NASA says it’s lost contact with two briefcase-sized MarCO nanosatellites, more than two months after their history-making Mars flyby.

And yet another robotic explorer, NASA’s Opportunity rover, has been mute on Mars for eight months, heightening suspicions that its 15-year watch could be at an end.

There’s still hope for Oppy: Mission managers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory say they haven’t been able to rouse the golf-cart-sized robot since a global dust storm wiped kept it from recharging its solar-powered battery system last June. But with Martian winter closing in, they’ve just begun a new set of wakeup strategies.

There’s less hope for the two MarCO satellites, whose nicknames come from a couple of robotic characters in the Disney/Pixar animated film “WALL-E.”

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InSight lander sets first tool on Martian ground

Seismometer on Mars
An image from NASA’s InSight lander shows the probe’s robotic arm putting a seismometer on Mars. This is the first time a seismometer has been placed onto the surface of another planet. (NASA / JPL-Caltech Photo)

After three weeks of checking out the scene on the Red Planet, NASA’s InSight landerhas placed its first scientific instrument on the Martian surface.

The probe’s robotic arm pulled InSight’s seismometer, known as the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure or SEIS, from the spacecraft’s deck on Dec. 19 and slowly, gingerly set it down on a flat spot directly in front of the lander. The arm stretched out to nearly its maximum reach, 5.367 feet away from the deck.

Deploying SEIS is a major milestone for InSight’s two-year mission to monitor seismic activity and internal heat flow on the Red Planet. (The mission’s name is an acronym that stands for “Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport.”)

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Orbiter spots InSight lander on Mars’ surface

Mars InSight spottings
NASA’s InSight lander (at center, with its two solar arrays), its heat shield (at right) and its parachute (at left) were imaged on Dec. 6 and 11 by the HiRISE camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Click on the image for a larger version. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / University of Arizona Photo)

Two weeks after NASA’s InSight lander touched down on Mars, its precise location on Elysium Planitia has been pinpointed, thanks to pictures from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

And it’s not just the car-sized lander: The orbiter even identified the sites where the spacecraft’s heat shield as well as its backshell and attached parachute ended up.

In today’s mission update, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory says the lander, heat shield and parachute are all within 1,000 feet of one another on the “heavenly plain” where InSight is gearing up to monitor Mars’ seismic activity and heat flow.

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NASA lander captures first recorded sounds of Mars

InSight lander solar panel
A raw image from NASA’s InSight lander shows the spacecraft’s robotic arm in the foreground, hanging over a solar panel. The terrain of Mars’ Elysium Planitia stretches out in the background. The colors look muted because they haven’t been fully calibrated. (NASA / JPL-Caltech Photo)

NASA’s Mars InSight lander is designed primarily to study the Red Planet’s interior, but it’s already produced a big bonus in the form of the first listenable sounds of the Martian wind.

The low-frequency sounds, plus an audio version that’s been bumped up a couple of octaves to enhance listenability, were released today by the mission team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Cornell University’s Don Banfield, who leads the science team for InSight’s Auxiliary Payload Sensor Subsystem, or APSS, said the sound “reminds me of sitting outside on a windy afternoon.”

The Dec. 1 detection took advantage of several components of the car-sized lander, including its solar panels.

“You can think of it rather in the same way as the human ear,” said Imperial College London’s Tom Pike, the science lead for InSight’s Short Period Seismometer.

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InSight lander snaps Mars selfies galore

Mars InSight photo
A photo snapped by the camera on the InSight lander’s robotic arm shows instruments on the spacecraft’s deck with Martian terrain in the background. The pointer indicates the location of two chips bearing the microscopic etched names of 2.4 million fans. (NASA / JPL-Caltech Photo)

One week after landing on the Martian plain of Elysium Planitia, NASA’s InSight lander is on a selfie-snapping spree — and the photos could be used as a guide for 2.4 million Earthlings and their descendants to look for their names.

InSight’s selfies aren’t meant to be a vanity project for the lander or its creators. Rather, they signal the start of a picture-taking campaign that’s designed to identify the best spots to plunk down the mission’s seismometer and temperature-measuring “mole.”

Pictures from full-color Instrument Deployment Camera, which is mounted on the spacecraft’s 6-foot-long robotic arm, will help scientist ensure that the spots they pick will be sufficiently level and rock-free to accommodate the first instruments to be lifted up and placed down permanently on the surface of another planet.

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InSight lander gets to Mars and sends pictures

Mars picture
At NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., InSight project manager Tom Hoffman reacts to the first image from the Mars InSight lander after its touchdown. (NASA Photo / Bill Ingalls)

REDMOND, Wash. — NASA’s Mars InSight lander touched down on a heavenly Martian plain Monday, marking the first successful landing on the Red Planet in more than six years.

“Touchdown confirmed! InSight is on the surface of Mars,” mission commentator Christine Szalai declared just before noon PT at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Minutes later, the lander sent back its first image, showing a wide expanse of flat terrain as seen through a dirt-flecked lens cover.

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Mars probe’s fans are all a-Twitter about landing

Today’s smashingly successful touchdown of NASA’s InSight lander on Mars was a cause for celebration on Twitter.

There was good-natured snark from SarcasticRover and from Matthew Inman, the Seattle cartoonist behind The Oatmeal (following up on his terrific preview of the landing). And there were heartfelt congratulations from the space community’s celebrities, including SpaceX founder Elon Musk and Bill Nye the Science Guy.

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Rev up the video for NASA’s InSight landing on Mars

Mars InSight lander
An artist’s conception shows NASA’s Mars InSight firing its thrusters for landing. (NASA / JPL-Caltech Illustration)

Today’s the day for the Mars InSight lander’s touchdown on the Red Planet, and NASA is pulling out all the stops to let us in on the action.

This is the first Mars landing to take place since the Curiosity rover was lowered onto the rocky terrain of Gusev Crater more than six years ago. And in the final hours of InSight’s nearly seven-month, 300 million-mile-cruise, the two robots are having quite a conversation on Twitter. (There’s even an in-joke over “sol,” which is NASA’s term for a Martian day.)

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All systems go for Mars InSight landing

Mars InSight lander
An artist’s conception shows the Mars Insight lander on the Red Planet’s surface, with its seismometer deployed at left and its heat-measuring “mole” deployed at right. (NASA / JPL-Caltech Illustration)

After a 300 million-mile, six-month interplanetary cruise, NASA’s Mars InSight robotic lander is heading for a plain-vanilla arrival at the Red Planet on Monday — and the team behind the mission couldn’t be more pleased.

“We’re expecting to have a very plain day on Mars for the landing, and we’re very happy about that,” said Rob Grover, the engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who’s in charge of Mars InSight’s entry, descent and landing.

That’s not only because the weather is relatively clear, but also because Mars InSight is on track to land in a no-drama region of Mars known as Elysium Planitia, which is Latin for  “Paradise Plain.”

“It may not look like paradise, but it is very flat. … It’s an excellent place for landing,” Grover said today. “As landing engineers, we really like this landing site.”

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Tiny probe snaps fresh picture of our Pale Blue Dot

Pale Blue Dot picture
The nanosatellite known as MarCO-B or Wall-E took this picture of Earth and the moon from a distance of more than 620,000 miles. (NASA / JPL-Caltech Photo)

You don’t have to fly beyond the orbit of Neptune to see our home planet as a Pale Blue Dot. One of the first nanosatellites to travel beyond Earth orbit has proven that in a new version of the view first made famous by “Cosmos” astronomer Carl Sagan.

This picture, showing Earth as a bluish speck and the moon as a faint blip, was captured by one of the two MarCO CubeSats that were launched toward Mars on May 5 as piggyback payloads for NASA’s Mars InSight mission.

Each of the MarCO (“MarCube One”) probes is roughly the size of a small briefcase, and stuffed with experimental equipment that will come into play during their Red Planet flyby in November.

Last week, the MarCO-B spacecraft (also known as Wall-E) snapped a picture with its wide-field color camera to check the deployment of its high-gain antenna.

The good news is that the pint-sized antenna has unfolded properly, as seen in the picture. The better news is that Earth and the moon showed up in the frame as well.

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