Ever since man has looked upwards to the stars, he has imagined what life there might be on Mars.
Yesterday, Nasa acknowledged that not even in his wildest dreams could he have conceived of anything less interesting.
It was in the early hours, after a journey of seven months and 300m miles, that the American space agency’s InSight probe, travelling at 13,200mph, entered the atmosphere of the Red Planet and came to rest on a vast car park.
That was how Nasa’s scientists described the location, Elysium Planitia: the biggest parking lot on Mars and one of the most boring places in the alien world.
Yet the success of the landing retains the capacity to confound expectations, a Yorkshire academic said last night.
Dr Emily Brunsden, an astrophysicist at the University of York, said: “There is huge potential to be surprised. It was only this year that we discovered an underground lake on Mars – no-one really expected that. It is still a mysterious planet.”
InSight is the first craft for six years to attempt to reach the planet. Only 40 per cent of missions there have succeeded and all have been US-led.
Dr Brunsden said the project differed from the earlier expeditions by aiming to explore beneath the surface of Mars.
She said: “Most of the instruments we have used to work out what’s going on in the depths of Mars have been orbiters. This will take the same physics we use to examine earthquakes, to try to tell us what is at its core.
“The earth and Mars are quite similar in terms of distance from the sun and what they’re made of. But their own evolution processes made them quite different and we want to know for instance why Mars is so small – a little lump. That will influence our understanding of how other solar systems formed as well.”
The InSight mission is taking two years and will cost £633m. But Dr Brunsden said the results would also inform future projects with different aims.
“I think we probably know enough about Mars to know that we could live there under certain conditions, with a lot of help.
“But we’ve only just begun to think about how to explore the solar system. These missions are incredibly difficult, and everything we learn goes into every future mission – whether it’s back to Mars or taking people into space.”
The first picture sent by InSight to the jubilant team at Nasa’s jet propulsion laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge, California, was inauspicious. Taken by the craft itself, it was a selfie from space, with part of the metalwork and the Martian surface in the distance.
“The InSight team can rest a little easier tonight now that we know the spacecraft solar arrays are deployed and recharging the batteries,” said Tom Hoffman, project manager at the laboratory.
“But tomorrow begins an exciting new chapter for InSight – surface operations and the beginning of the instrument deployment phase.”
Three UK-made seismometer instruments are on board, part of a £4m UK Space Agency effort to measure seismic waves. One will burrow five metres into the ground, measuring the planet’s temperature, while another will determine how Mars wobbles on its axis.
“It is wonderful news that the InSight spacecraft has landed safely,” said Sue Horne, head of space exploration at the UK Space Agency. “We can now look forward to the deployment of the instrument and the data that will start to arrive in the new year.”