So, You’re Still Interested In Astronomy?
Hello again. Last time out, we looked at 10 factors that showed how diverse our own Solar System is.
This time, we’re delving into events as they unfold on Mars. In particular, the InSight mission to study the deep interior of our favorite Red Planet.
So, what is the InSight mission?
InSight stands for – Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, a NASA Discovery program that will place a single geophysical lander on Mars.
What will it do, exactly?
InSight won’t just examine Mars’ interior, it’s a terrestrial explorer that will try to uncover one of the most fundamental issues of planetary science: understanding the process that shaped the rocky planets that make up the inner sanctum of the Solar System.
Wasn’t this project supposed to have already started?
Yes, the mission was originally scheduled to launch in March of this year, but NASA suspended preparations in December due to the discovery of a vacuum leak in its prime science instrument, the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS).
So, what date will NASA be working toward now?
Well, it’s not simply a question of looking for a free spot in the diary, as the next available launch opportunity is driven by orbital dynamics. So, 2018 is the soonest the lander can be on its way. At the moment, the new launch period should begin its preparations on May 5, 2018, with a Mars landing itself scheduled for Nov. 26, 2018.
What does the SEISS do?
The SEIS instrument is designed to measure ground movement as small as half the radius of a hydrogen atom (pretty tiny eh?) To do that, it requires a perfect vacuum seal around its three main sensors. Only then will it be able to withstand the harsh conditions it will find.
Why do the instruments have to be so sensitive?
Mars does not possess any plate tectonics that we know of. Because it’s less geologically active than the Earth, it retains a more complete record of its history in its own basic planetary substance: its core, mantle and crust, etc. So, by studying the size, thickness, density and overall structure of the Red Planet’s sedimentary layers, as well as the rate at which heat escapes from the planet’s interior, the InSight mission will provide glimpses into the evolutionary processes of all of the rocky planets in the inner solar system.
In terms of underlying processes that go into planetary formation, Mars is what’s been called a golden nugget, because it is big enough to have undergone the earliest internal heating and differentiation (separation of the crust, mantle and core) processes that shaped the terrestrial planets (Earth, Venus, Mercury, Moon), but small enough to have retained the signature of those processes over the next four billion years. Within its own structure, Mars may contain the most in-depth and accurate record in the solar system of these processes.
What do we know about the spacecraft?
InSight will use a similar design to that used by the Phoenix mission in 2007 to study ground ice near the north pole of Mars. The reuse of this technology will provide a low-risk path to Mars without the added cost of designing and testing a new system from scratch.
The lander itself will be equipped with two science instruments that will conduct the first “check-up” of Mars in more than 4.5 billion years, measuring its “pulse”, or internal activity; its temperature; and the way it flexes as it’s pulled by the Sun and its moons. Scientists will be able to interpret this data to understand the planet’s history, its interior structure and activity, and the forces that shaped rocky planet formation in the inner solar system.
And what about its payload?
The science payload is comprised of two main instruments: the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS), provided by the French Space Agency (CNES), with the participation of the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris (IPGP), the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS), Imperial College and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3), provided by the German Space Agency (DLR).
In addition, the Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment (RISE), led by JPL, will use the spacecraft communication system to provide precise measurements of planetary rotation.
Remind us, what are the mission details?
InSight is due to arrive on Mars sometime in November 2018. It will rely on proven technologies used on NASA’s Mars Phoenix mission, and will send a lander to the Martian surface that will spend two years investigating the deep interior of Mars, as well as the processes that not only shaped the Red Planet, but also rocky planets throughout the inner solar system. Through this, we hope to learn more about our place within the cosmos, and perhaps, how better to search for life elsewhere.
So there you go. Another fascinating dip into what’s taking place in our own Solar System.
Next time, we’ll take another look at something we rely on every day: the sun, and compare it to what else we can find out there.
See you then.