NASA has begun the final preparations for its next – and most ambitious – rover landing on Mars.
The InSight probe blasted off on May 5th, and, NASA hopes, will touch down on the Martian surface on November 26th.
If it manages to land on the red planet, it will drill down into the surface of Mars in a groundbreaking study that could reveal how the red planet – and earth – formed.
InSight will study the deep interior of Mars, taking the planet’s vital signs, its pulse and temperature, and NASA says it will ‘give Mars a thorough checkup for the first time since the planet formed 4.5 billion years ago.
‘InSight will teach us about the interior of planets like our own.
‘The mission team hopes that by studying the deep interior of Mars, we can learn how other rocky worlds, including Earth and the Moon, formed.’
A slender cylindrical probe dubbed the mole is designed to tunnel nearly 16 feet (five metres) into the Martian soil.
A quake-measuring seismometer, meanwhile, will be removed from the lander by a mechanical arm and placed directly on the surface for better vibration monitoring.
Previous missions to the Red Planet have investigated its surface by studying its canyons, volcanoes, rocks and soil.
But the signatures of the planet’s formation can only be found by sensing and studying its vital signs far below the surface.
However, beforethe InSight lander can begin its job on Mars, it will have to survive a treacherous re-entry and landing through the planet’s atmosphere.
After travelling over 300 million miles in space and reaching the martian atmosphere, the InSight spacecraft only has seven minutes to land safely on the surface — often referred to as the most treacherous stage of the mission, according to the agency.
‘Landing on Mars is hard, and this mission in no different,’ said Rob Manning, chief engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory,
‘It takes thousands of steps to go from the atmosphere to the surface, and each has to work perfectly.’
The craft will reach up to 13,000 miles per hour as it descends through the atmosphere.
InSight is scheduled to land on a flat, smooth plain close to the planet’s equator known as the Elysium Planitia.
‘Where we land is an intentionally dull place,’ Neil Bowles, a UK researcher involved in the mission, told the Guardian.
‘It’s flat, empty and hopefully not very windy. And that is precisely what we need’.
The success rate of landing on Mars, counting orbiters and landers by Nasa and others, is only about 40 per cent.
If the lander survives its landing, the solar-powered InSight will spend two Earth years – about one Martian year – plumbing the depths of the planet’s interior for clues to how Mars took form and, by extension, the origins of the Earth and other rocky planets.
While Earth’s tectonics and other forces have erased most evidence of its early history, much of Mars – about one-third the size of Earth – is believed to have remained relatively static for more than 3 billion years, creating a geologic time machine for scientists.
‘The science we want to do with this mission is really the science of understanding the early solar system,’ Bruce Banerdt, InSight principal investigator said during an interview ahead of the launch of the craft.
InSight’s primary instrument is a French-built seismometer, a device designed to detect the slightest ground motion from ‘marsquakes’, even those on the opposite side of the planet.
The instrument is so sensitive, Dr Banerdt said, that it can measure a seismic wave just one-half the radius of a hydrogen atom.
Mars, unlike the Earth, doesn’t have tectonic plates, so scientists are interested in learning more about what causes the geological phenomenon.
Special instruments attached to the InSight lander will help them collect data over the course of two years on the red planet’s geologic structure, composition and seismic activity.
InSight is equipped with two solar panels, which unfold ‘like paper fans’ for a total width of about 20 feet.
It will also deploy a seismometer that will record tremors from geological faults, as well as shock waves created by meteor impacts.
Radio equipment is attached to the lander to track the InSight’s position on Mars’s surface and deduce how much Mars ‘wobbles’ as it orbits the sun – a project called the Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment (RISE).
This will provide insights into the size of Mars’ iron-rich core and whether it is liquid or solid, as well as which other elements may be present, according to Nasa.
Finally, a heat flow probe will burrow 16 feet into Mars’s subsurface, pulling behind it a cable encasing a thermal probe to measure heat flowing from inside the planet.
Scientists expect to see a dozen to 100 marsquakes over the course of the mission, producing data that will help them deduce the depth, density and composition of the planet’s core, the rocky mantle surrounding it and the outermost layer, the crust.
Experts say Mars is believed to produce quakes that are smaller than 6.0 on the Richter scale.
InSight is not the first attempt to measure Martian seismic activity.
The Viking probes of the mid-1970s were equipped with seismometers, too, but they were bolted to the top of the landers, which swayed in Martian winds on legs built with shock absorbers.
Banerdt called those ‘handicapped experiments,’ joking, ‘We didn’t do seismology on Mars – we did it 3 feet above Mars.’
Apollo missions to the moon brought seismometers to the lunar surface as well, detecting thousands of moonquakes and meteorite impacts.
InSight is expected to yield the first meaningful data on internal planetary tremors beyond Earth.