Sci-tech information: NASA’s new InSight lander will plumb the depths of Mars in 2016
We’ve been staring at the ruddy surface of Mars through telescopes for many years, and only recently have we been able to begin truly exploring the red planet with our robotic minions. NASA’s next step is to go deeper €” literally. The space agency has gotten official approval to begin construction of the InSight lander, which will be launched in the direction of Mars in spring 2016. While there, it’s going to peer beneath the surface of the planet and see what, if anything, is going on down there.
NASA had to go through some astounding linguistic contortions to get a workable acronym out of this missions. The official name is Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, or InSight (okay, sure). NASA passed the crucial mission final design review last week, so now it’s on to lining up manufacturing and equipment partners to build the probe and get it to Mars on time (Lockheed Martin is building the majority of the lander). As with many deep space launches, the timing is incredibly important €” if not launched at the right point in Earth’s orbit, the trip to Mars would be far too long.
Unlike the Curiosity rover, which won our hearts with its fascinating rocket-powered sky crane landing, InSight will be a stationary probe more akin to the Phoenix lander. That probe was deployed to search the surface for signs of microbial life on Mars by collecting and analyzing soil samples. InSight, however, will not rely on a tiny shovel like Phoenix €” it will have a fully articulating robotic arm equipped with burrowing instruments.
Once InSight sets down on its three landing struts near the Martian equator, that’s where it will stay for its entire two year mission, and possibly longer if it can hack it. That’s a much longer official mission duration than the Phoenix lander was designed for, meaning it’s going to need to endure some harsh conditions. This, in conjunction with InSight’s solar power system, made the equatorial region a preferable landing zone.
InSight will use a sensitive subsurface instrument called the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) to track ground motion transmitted through the interior of the planet caused by so-called €marsquakes€ and distant meteor impacts. A separate heat flow analysis package will measure the heat radiating from the planet’s interior.
Earth’s larger size has kept its core hot and spinning for billions of years, which provides us with a protective magnetic field. Mars cooled very quickly, so NASA scientists believe more data on the formation and early life of rocky planets will be preserved. The lander will also connect to NASA’s Deep Space Network antennas on Earth to precisely track the position of Mars over time. A slight wobbling could indicate the red planet still has a small molten core.
If all goes to plan, InSight should arrive on Mars just six months after its launch in Spring 2016. Hopefully it teaches us not only about Mars’ past, but our own as well.