Five Things to Know About NASA’s InSight Mission to Mars

This Saturday, the craft will launch on its mission to search for clues about the Red Planet’s interior

Mars Insight Mission.jpg
Illustration of NASA's Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight). NASA

This Saturday, NASA’s InSight spacecraft will launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, taking us somewhere we’ve never been: the Red Planet’s deep interior.

As Shannon Stirone reports for Popular Science, researchers have actually sent more than 21 different spacecraft to study the planet. But this mission is the first time we’re exploring deep inside Mars’ core — something we still know relatively little about.

The launch time is planned for 7:05 AM EST Saturday, and you can catch the show on NASA’s livestream. But if weather or mechanical issues intervene, the team will keep trying. The launch period is open till June 8.

Until then, here’s a few things you should know about the InSight mission to Mars:

Why Are We Studying Mars' Interior?

“We know a lot about the surface of Mars, we know a lot about its atmosphere and even about its ionosphere,” says Bruce Banerdt, the mission’s principal investigator, in a NASA video. “But we don’t know very much about what goes on a mile below the surface, much less 2,000 miles below the surface.” The goal of InSight is to fill that knowledge gap, helping NASA map out the deep structure of Mars.

By better understanding Mars’ interior, scientists hope to advance our understanding of how rocky planets, like both Mars and Earth, evolve and develop overtime, reports Stirone. While this mission is not directly focused on the search for life, as past missions have been, some of the findings about Mars’ mysterious core could hold clues to ancient conditions that may have supported life, The New York Times’ Kenneth Chang reports.

It could also help provide answers the question: Why is modern Earth so habitable but the Red Planet is not?

Where Will InSight Land?

InSight is planned to touch down November 26 on Mars’ Elysium Planitia—a super-flat expanse. “We picked something as close to a 100 kilometer-long parking lot as we could find anywhere,” Banerdt tells Chang. The idea is that the flatter the region, the easier it will be for InSight to deploy its various instruments.

NASA Mars InSight Overview

What Can This Nifty Lander Do?

InSight will spend its first two months placing instruments on the surface to investigate Mars’ interior. “I like to say we’re playing the claw game on Mars with no joystick,” says Jamie Singer, InSight instrumental deployment lead.

According to NASA, these instruments include the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Probe, which will drill up to 16 feet into the ground to measure the heat emanating from deep inside the planet. A tool known as Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment, or RISE is a radio science experiment that will measure wobbles as the planet rotates. RISE will help glean information about the composition and state of Mars’ core.

The lander will also deploy a super sensitive seismometer that can monitor tiny tremors of the planet’s surface or “marsquakes.” This device, the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS), is so sensitive it can measure “the movement of the ground by the distance of single atoms,” writes Stirone.

What Are “Marsquakes”?

Similar to earthquakes, marsquakes are tremors on the Red Planet. Though such quakes have not yet been detected, scientists are nearly positive they occur. As the planet cools and shrinks, it’s believed that the crust also cracks, setting off marsquakes of 6- or 7-magnitude. Similar activity has already been recorded on the moon. Meteoroid strikes may play a role in additional quakes, writes Katarina Miljkovic, planetary scientist at Curtin University and a collaborator to the InSight mission, for The Conversation.

Such quakes can be used to image the interior of the planet, notes Milijkovic, since such waves " travel at different speeds when passing through different materials." In the two years of Insight’s primary mission, the team expects to observe at least 10 to 12 marsquakes, Chang reports.

Have Scientists Ever Attempted to Measure “Marsquakes”?

In the 1970s, NASA’s Viking 2 carried the only seismometer ever to have worked on Mars. Because it wasn’t placed directly on the ground, wind often obscured the measurements. It only measured one rumble that may have been a quake, but even that “was ambiguous and not particularly useful,” Banerdt tells Chang. Russia’s 1996 mission to Mars also attempted to measure seismic activity, but that mission failed, Chang reports.

Perhaps InSight will give scientists their first clues to the tremors of this far-flung world.

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