InSight's Mission Duration

Mars Time Earth Time
Days 709 Sols 728 days
Years One year and 40 sols Nearly two years

The InSight lander began surface operations the minute it landed at Elysium Planitia on Mars, but science data collection didn't start fully until about 10 weeks after landing. That's because InSight's science goals and instruments are very different from other Mars landers or rovers. In some ways, InSight's science activities were designed to be more like a marathon than a sprint. The lander team had to carefully select where on the ground to place the precious science instruments, which are the first to study the deep interior of Mars.

Direct Contact with the Surface of Mars

InSight had to place its Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) and Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) on the surface, in direct contact with Mars in order to take the “vital signs” of Mars. To truly study the larger picture of the deep Martian interior, the plan was for both these instruments – plus the radio science investigation known as Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment, RISE) – to collect science data for at least one Mars year (about 23 Earth months). Once SEIS was placed on the surface of Mars and was ready for science operations, it was to remain stationary for the remainder of the mission. After HP3 was placed on the surface, its mole was to burrow about 16 feet (5 meters) below the surface before it was ready to stay still and make its long-term measurements.

At launch, the instruments were securely stowed on the lander deck. It was the job of InSight's robotic arm to place them on the surface after landing. To get it right, the lander and the operations team on Earth had to move carefully and deliberately, and ensure the instruments were placed properly for the best observations. Placing the instruments in direct contact with the surface, and monitoring them closely, was key to the quality of science data InSight could collect on Mars. Knowing that the mission might rewrite textbooks placed a lot of pressure on the team to make all the right moves!

First Things First: Solar Power

The dust from landing settled about 15 minutes after InSight made it to the surface. After this, the solar array motors warmed up and prepared to unfurl the solar panels. This important activity ensured that the lander had all the power it needed to get to work on Mars. This, and other tasks on landing day took place autonomously, without human intervention.

Other Checkouts on Landing Day Included:

  • Checking the lander's health indicators
  • Taking a wide-angle image (with lens cover on)
  • Powering down to "sleep" mode for the first night on Mars

The First Few Weeks After Landing

Some science data collection began the first week after landing. RISE, the Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment, began collecting data, and the lander took pictures of the instrument deployment area and started monitoring the weather and surface temperature at its new home. But since the heat probe and seismometer needed to be on the surface of Mars to collect data, they had to wait a few more weeks before they could be fully deployed.

InSight was the first mission dedicated to investigating the deep interior of Mars. The findings help advance understanding of how all rocky planets, including Earth, formed and evolved.
InSight was the first mission dedicated to investigating the deep interior of Mars. The findings help advance understanding of how all rocky planets, including Earth, formed and evolved.

RISE Gets to Work

RISE was a silent worker. Its job was to stay on the lander and trade X-band radio signals back and forth with Earth for half an hour or so each day. It had to do this for about two years in order to detect subtle wobbles of Mars’ rotation. Watching for small changes in the signals as seen on Earth answers questions about the nature of Mars’ core. RISE was the first instrument to start collecting science data for InSight.

Studying its New Home

InSight took the first three weeks or so after landing to really get to know its new home. On its first day on Mars, the cameras on the lander deck and the arm took photos with their transparent lens covers on. Both cameras took images with the lens cover off within their first week on Mars. These images gave the team back on Earth a quick look at the terrain of InSight’s landing location.

For the first three weeks on Mars, InSight imaged its workspace next to the lander in detail, using stereo image pairs to create 3D images to find the best places on the surface to put the heat probe and seismometer.

Over the next several Martian days, InSight checked that its arm could pick up and perform its functions without a hitch. This was the first time a robotic arm picked up an instrument and placed it onto the surface of another planet. So it needed to rehearse its actions a few times on Earth first before doing so on Mars.

Deploying the Seismometer

Once the initial checks on the arm were complete, InSight’s robotic arm deployed the seismometer, the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS), at the chosen spot. A week or so later, after adjusting the position of the cable connecting SEIS to the lander, the arm placed the seismometer's protective dome, its wind and thermal shield, on top. With that, the seismometer was ready to detect seismic waves generated by marsquakes, meteorite impacts, and other sources.

The Heat Probe Begins Attempts to Burrow

InSight's Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3, for short) deployed about one week after the seismometer was in place. InSight's arm placed the support structure for the probe, known as the mole, on the ground. The mole was designed to burrow into the ground like a self-hammering nail, to a depth of about 16 feet (5 meters).

After the mole began to hammer itself under the surface, it encountered different soil properties than expected and was unable to reach the desired depth. The mole's design was based on soil seen by previous Mars missions, which turned out to be much different than the stiff but crumbly crust it encountered, which had dirt granules that stuck together. Despite repeated attempts to hammer farther below the surface, using the lander's robotic arm to assist, the instrument was only able to get deep enough for its backend to get about an inch (2 to 3 centimeters) below the surface. The team suspended that portion of the mission after the final attempt on Jan. 9, 2021, while other science exploration continued with the other InSight instruments.

The unexpected experience with the soil characteristics provided valuable information for the team about soil properties on Mars and how to creatively troubleshoot a difficult problem from millions of miles away on Earth. These lessons will benefit future Mars explorers.

Talking to Earth While Setting Up

InSight normally talked to Earth once or twice per Martian day via one of the satellites orbiting Mars (the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Odyssey, MAVEN, and the Trace Gas Orbiter). But during the critical first few weeks after landing, it was in touch with Earth at least three times each day. In addition, it talked directly to ground stations on Earth through a lower-speed link. This frequent contact with Earth continued until all checks were complete and routine operations began. It also gave the operations team the chance to plan the next day of operations based on the results of the previous day's activities.

InSight's Surface Operations Schedule

The team back on Earth rehearsed InSight's first few months on Mars many times. A sample timetable for what it did during its first few weeks is below.

Surface Operations Sample Timeline
Action Time After Landing
Surface operations begin At touchdown. First data arrive back on Earth about 16 minutes later
Deck camera takes pictures with the lens cover on A few minutes after touchdown
Landing day checkouts start On landing day (Sol 0)
Arm and deck camera take pictures with the lens cover off The camera on the lander deck takes an image with its cover off on Sol 2. The cover on the camera on the arm is released on Sol 3 and it takes its first image with the cover off on Sol 4
Some science data collection begins A few days after landing
Lander cameras image the landing site 1 to 2 weeks after landing
RISE begins science observations 1 day after landing
Initial checks of the robotic arm First week after landing
Deployment of Instruments on the Surface of Mars
Arm places seismometer on the surface 3 to 4 weeks after landing
Arm places protective wind and thermal shield on seismometer Within 2 weeks after placing the seismometer on the ground
SEIS begins science measurements 1 week after placing the wind and thermal shield on the seismometer
Arm places heat probe on the surface 1 to 2 weeks after placing the wind and thermal shield on the seismometer
HP3 mole attempts to burrows 4-6 weeks after placing HP3 on the surface
Routine operations start Several weeks into the mission