Previous missions to Mars have been biased towards what’s happening on the surface. That’s no surprise given the menu of marvels on offer, such as sweeping sand dunes, soaring volcanoes and scintillating blue sunsets. We now know Mars’s outer facade so well that we have a better map of the Martian surface than we do of the ocean floor here on Earth. Yet it’s the deepest layers of a planet that really make it tick, and relatively little is known about the Red Planet’s interior. Now, that’s all about to change thanks to a mission that has been long in the planning. “It was first proposed 25 years ago,” says Dr Suzanne Smrekar from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. “We’re excited to finally be doing this.” Smrekar is the deputy principal investigator for the InSight mission. It was launched in May aboard an Atlas V-401 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and is currently en route to the Red Planet. Due to touchdown on Mars on 26 November, close to NASA’s existing Curiosity rover, it will spend a minimum of one Martian year (nearly two Earth years) surveying deep beneath the famously ruddy dirt.
The Mars InSight mission preparing for liftoff in May 2018 The goal of InSight is to give Mars’s interior the planetary equivalent of a full body health check. It will take its ‘pulse’ by carefully monitoring seismic activity (otherwise known as ‘Marsquakes’) and record its temperature by keeping track of the heat flow under the planet’s surface. That will help us understand how rocky planets, such as Earth and Mars, formed in the first place. On Earth, most of these clues have been erased due to the action of our tectonic plates over billions of years. While seismic activity has been measured on the Moon, thanks to instruments left by the Apollo astronauts, it’s a much smaller world and it formed in a different way to the Solar System’s four rocky planets. Mars could hold secrets about how we came to be here in the first place, and InSight hopes to find them. “Mars is the perfect place for us to learn about terrestrial planet formation and evolution,” says Smrekar.
The Insight lander will be digging beneath the surface of Mars. TOUCHDOWN ON MARS
The lander itself is based on NASA’s Phoenix probe that touched down close to the Martian north pole in May 2008. By closely following a previous design, mission scientists have kept costs down. Since InSight will initially strike the Martian atmosphere at over 10,000 kilometres per hour, the craft has an outer shell that will shield the sensitive equipment from the heat generated by friction with Mars’s thin atmosphere. A parachute will then deploy to lower InSight down through the bottom half of the Martian atmosphere, then rockets will fire when it is 100 metres above the surface to gently deposit it onto the Red Planet. While Phoenix’s landing went smoothly, that’s no guarantee of a hiccup-free ride this time around – landing anything on Mars is a notoriously tricky business. “A third of previous Mars missions have been unsuccessful,” says Smrekar. Still, she’s confident that their well-tested system has a 99 per cent chance of sticking the landing within the 130km-wide designated touchdown zone in a flat plain known as the Elysium Planitia. Sixteen minutes after landing, the Martian dust will have settled back down, after which InSight’s solar arrays will whirr into action to unfurl and charge its solar panels. Then the mission begins in earnest.
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