Once again, NASA heads to Mars

For the first time since launching Curiosity in 2011, NASA is sending a spacecraft to land on Mars. The InSight mission is due to launch on the weekend, from the Vandenberg Air Force Base on the California coast, becoming the next instalment in the long-running quest to understand the Red Planet.

Car-sized rover Curiosity has spent the last six years gallivanting around rusty red deserts, snapping pictures of Martian vistas and examining soil and rocks. But InSight — short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy, and Heat Transport — won’t be so active. It’s a lander, not a rover, and its goal is to look beyond the surface level, deep into the planet’s interior.

This solar-powered interplanetary emissary will help scientists better understand the formation, evolution and composition of Mars and other rocky planets — both in our solar system and beyond. {%recommended 5321%}

“When it comes to rocky planets, we’ve only studied one in detail: Earth. By comparing Earth’s interior to that of Mars, InSight’s team hopes to better understand our solar system.” NASA said in a statement. 

“What they learn might even aid the search for Earth-like exoplanets, narrowing down which ones might be able to support life.”

To do this, InSight will be taking the vital signs of Mars, including its pulse (using seismic waves), temperature (by measuring interior heat flow) and reflexes (using radio science). This will be the planet’s first check-up since its formation 4.5 billion years ago.

InSight is equipped with three main instruments. The super-sensitive Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) is designed to measure seismic waves — otherwise known as Marsquakes — and thus map the interior of the planet. It will also be able to detect liquid water, meteorite impacts, and volcanic plumes.

The second key instrument is the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Probe (HP3), which is essentially a self-hammering nail that will burrow up to five metres below the surface. By measuring the planet’s heat output, HP3 will give scientists a sneak peek into how it evolved.

Finally, the Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment (RISE) will precisely track the location of the lander to determine how much Mars “wobbles” as it orbits the Sun. This will provide detailed information about the size and composition of the planet’s core.

InSight is also equipped with a clawed robotic arm to deploy its research instruments — so mission scientists back on Earth will be playing an interplanetary version of the classic “Skill Tester” arcade game.

The mission was initially slated for launch in 2016, but problems with SEIS delayed it for two years. The lander will now blast off before dawn on Saturday May 5, US west coast time, aboard a powerful Atlas V rocket. 

The rocket will also be carrying a mission called Mars Cube One: two miniature satellites that will be the first tests of CubeSat technology in deep space. When InSight arrives at Mars in November this year, these CubeSats will beam back data about the lander as it hurtles through the atmosphere and touches down on Elysium Planitia, a low-lying equatorial plain.

Then, InSight will buckle down for two years of hard, dusty work. 

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