If we could dissect Mars, what would we find beneath the dusty, red, sun-blasted surface?
NASA’s InSight project is about to find out next year when it examines the Martian insides for possible evidence as to how terrestrial planets such as our own formed billions of years ago. The spacecraft, a stationary lander constructed by Lockheed Martin Space Systems that is currently undergoing a testing process, is finally set to launch next May to probe the depths of the Red Planet after two years of technical difficulties. The lander is expected to touch down near the Martian equator about six months after takeoff.
While Mars has been crawling with rovers and landers and studied by orbiting satellites for years, this mission stands out because previous instruments have only zoomed in on the planet’s face—its regolith (soil), rocks, craters and volcanoes. InSight will use two above-ground instruments to investigate what lies beneath and transmit that information back to the surface.
InSight’s one mechanical eye is a hypersensitive seismometer that will be trained on potential meteor impacts or the seismic waves otherwise known as Mars-quakes. It can pick up nano-tremors half the diameter of a hydrogen atom. Whenever Mars trembles, it can unearth things about the planet’s ancient past that would be impossible to detect otherwise. The other “eye” is a heat probe that can delve 10 to 16 feet beneath the surface to determine how much energy the planet is generating from its depths.
Mars is an ideal specimen to study when it comes to fleshing out theories of how rocky planets were formed because of its absence of plate tectonics.
“Because the interior of Mars has churned much less than Earth’s in the past three billion years, Mars likely preserves evidence about rocky planets’ infancy better than our home planet does,” said InSight principal investigator Bruce Banerdt of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab.
Another thing InSight will focus on is Mars’ rotation on its axis, which could possibly tell us about the size of its unreachable core, by using radio transmissions between the Red Planet and our own.
So why the long wait? Martian missions that get pushed back by more than a few weeks end up having to wait the 26 months it takes for the orbits of Earth and Mars to position the planets in a way that would be ideal for taking off. The window during which Mars is close enough to our planet for optimal travel time and fuel cost only lasts a few weeks. In InSight’s case, there was also a tech issue with the seismometer that extended the waiting period even longer, because you can’t expect a seismometer to measure anything without functional sensors.
“We have fixed the problem we had two years ago, and we are eagerly preparing for launch,” assured InSight project manager Tom Hoffman.
Bet he’s more eager to know what lies under the skin of Mars.