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French-equipped Mars explorer touches down

The InSight probe will use three instruments, including a seismometer developed in France, to study the interior of the planet Mars. NASA/JPL-Caltech

The InSight probe successfully landed on the planet Mars late Monday and will begin studying the world’s interior. Headed by United States space agency Nasa, the probe’s key tool for carrying out its primary task was designed in France.

The confirmation of touchdown at 19:53 GMT led to cheers at Nasa’s mission control and among enthusiasts around the world, including at the City of Science and Industry museum in Paris.

A series of signals confirmed that the probe had survived the difficult descent to the Red Planet and not gone the way of previous failed missions.

“A huge number of different operations have to be automatically programmed and achieved, and a very tiny difference in one of them could break something and make it immediately a failure,” says French astrophysicist Jean-Pierre Bibring.

“It’s very complex, and that's why over the past decades, half of the attempts have failed.”

Jean-Pierre Bibring, French astrophysicist 27/11/2018 - by Amanda Morrow Listen

Chief Nasa administrator James Bridenstine told reporters it was “an amazing day” and said that President Donald Trump has rung to offer his congratulations.

InSight now sits on a vast plain known as Elysium Planitia, close to the planet’s equator, from which it will help develop an understanding of Mars’s inner workings.

By listening for quakes, meteor landings or volcanic activity, scientists can learn more about what is happening underground, as well as how the planet was formed.

“Mars is on the cusp between being an active planet and a dead planet, in terms of its capacity to evolve,” Bibring says.

“[The mission] will tell us the difference between Mars and the Earth, and that’s fundamental in terms of understanding what has made the Earth’s evolution so specific that it harboured life.”

The probe’s key tool for sensing earthquakes, the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS), was developed in France’s National Centre for Space Studies.

Philippe Lognonne, the principal investigator on the SEIS, said he was “relieved and very happy” that the probe had landed intact and online.

Space agencies around Europe, including Germany, Spain, Poland and Switzerland, also contributed technology to the mission.