New InSight Spacecraft to Study Interior Structure of Mars

InSight Spacecraft on Mars
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The image above shows an artists’ impression of the deployed InSight spacecraft on the surface of Mars. The craft was launched from the west coast of the USA on May 5. 2018, after a two-year delay to repair vacuum leaks in a mission-critical instrument.

The new craft, dubbed InSight (Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport), was launched with a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, and in six-and-a-half months is destined to land in the Elysium Planitia region of Mars’s Northern hemisphere.

While the surface of Mars had been mapped extensively, relatively little is known about the structure of its interior, and so the data the craft collects will hopefully offer new insights into the crust, mantle, and core of the the red planet. As a secondary objective, the craft will also gather data on possible tectonic activity, and track pressure waves caused by meteorites when they crash into the planet’s surface.

Essentially, the new mission will provide new information on the processes that govern the formation of rocky planets, which data planetary scientists hope to use to infer (if not untangle) the geological history of Mars. The craft will also provide the most detailed data on the regional climate of the planet, and barring instrument malfunctions and other disasters, the entire data set will represent the most complete data scientists have ever had on Mars.

While learning more about Mars itself is the primary goal of the mission, scientists are hoping that the data the craft collects will provide insights into theEarth, and the other rocky planets formed in not only the solar system, but elsewhere in the solar neighborhood as well. Moreover, planetary scientists will also use the collected data to plan for possible future manned missions to Mars.

As a practical matter, the InSight craft will conduct three major experiments during its mission, these being-

– The Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) is designed to monitor Mars quakes and other interior processes/activity to allow scientists to infer the history and internal structure of the planet. This experiment is aimed at settling the question of whether or not Mars is geologically active. Based on available knowledge, it appears that Mars’ crust has not undergone any geological activity since the planet’s formation, in contrast to Earth whose interior contains crustal material that is at most 100 million years old.

– The Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) is designed to measure the amount of internal heat that is transferred to the surface and atmosphere, as well as the flow patterns of internal heat. According to mission scientists, this data will allow planetary scientist to paint a picture of how the interior of the planet has evolved since its formation.

– The Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment (RISE) is designed to bounce radio signals between the craft and Earth as a means to detect inconsistencies in the planets’ rotation. The purpose of the experiment is to use rotational anomalies to infer the properties of the planets’ core, as well as details on how the core interacts with the mantle, including whether or not the mantle is slipping over the core, which if it does, will produce relatively large rotational anomalies.

According to one researcher on the team: “We’re basically going to play the claw game on Mars with no joystick. The team will get daily information from the lander, which they will use to work out sets of instructions to send. It may sound slow, but it’s really exciting. Every day, we get pictures from Mars and we get to see something new or different that happened”.

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