Image credit: NASA / JPL-CALTECH
It's red, and it's dead, so why does NASA send another mission to Mars?
Nearly 70 orbiters, flybys, landers and rovers have been sent to the red planet, so some may be confused about why NASA is sending one more mission, called InSight, to go where they have been before.
The answer, of course, is science. An impressive and cutting-edge planetary science that, until now, has simply not been possible. InSight will look inside Mars for, among other things, Marsquakes.
When will InSight be launched?
The first mission to study deep under the Martian surface, InSight is scheduled for a launch before dawn at 4:05 a.m. PT / 7:05 a.m. ET / 12:05 p.m. GMT / 9:05 p.m. AEST on May 5, 2018 from Vandenberg Air Base in California, which makes it the first planetary mission to take off from the West Coast of the USA. UU
It's headed up on the back of a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 401 rocket, one of the largest rockets of all, from Space Launch Complex-3 in Vandenberg.
Fortunately, you can see the release live on NASA TV . Californians who get up early and live between Santa Maria and San Diego can even take a look at the launch.
Hitching a ride will be two computer chips that contain 2.4 million names sent to the project.
"It's an experiment to see how many people can participate in a mission to Mars," said Bruce Banerdt, InSight's principal investigator at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "Both are stuck!"
When and where does InSight land?
InSight will take 206 days to travel 485 million km to Mars. However, InSight will not travel to Mars completely alone.
The Atlas V will also launch two cubesats the size of a briefcase called MarCO that will accompany InSight into the Martian atmosphere, constantly sending data on its progress and landing.
With the help of a supersonic parachute and descent engines, InSight is due to a landing on Mars on November 26, 2018.
Once it lands, it will not move even an inch as it is there to take the vital signs of Mars, its tectonic activity and its temperature, which are only possible from a stationary position.
You must land in the Elysium Planitia region of Mars, an area devoid of rocks, and flat enough to ensure that InSight solar panels get uninterrupted sun.
That's just 373 miles from Gale Crater, where Curiosity has spent the last six years (or three Martian years ) on a super-slow 10-mile trip.
However, InSight looks much more like the Phoenix Mars Lander that landed in the north arctic circle of Mars in 2008 to explore the soil and ice below the surface.
InSight will not move much either because it is not there to study the Martian terrain, but what is below.
"It really does not matter where we land because we are interested in the deep structure of the planet," Banerdt said, adding that NASA, therefore, chose the safest and easiest place to land.
So, what is a Marsquake?
Internal Exploration Taquigraphy using Seismic Investigation, Geodesy and Heat Transport, InSight will be NASA's first mission from the lunar landings of the Apollo to place a seismometer on an alien surface.
That instrument, called the Seismic Experiment for the Interior Structure (SEIS), is there to measure the intensity of the waves that travel through the rock, which have been previously detected on Earth.
Are they caused by tidal waves or meteorites hitting the surface? Scientists expect to see between 12 and 100 tsunamis in the mission of two years, but not more than 6.0 on the Richter scale.
InSight's captures of data will be the equivalent of an interior radiograph of Mars.
"In a way, InSight is like a scientific time machine that will bring information about the early stages of Mars formation 4.5 billion years ago," says Banerdt. "It will help us learn how rock bodies are formed, including the Earth, its moon and even the planets of other solar systems."
What other technology is there within InSight?
Although InSight is landing far from Mars Tharsis Plateau home to some of the largest volcanoes in the solar system, it has an instrument that can help scientists discover how heat flows from inside the red planet .
HP3 is a self-compacting heat-flow probe that will be pushed 16 feet / 5m into the surface of the planet to take its temperature. Also on board is a radio system called Rotation and Inner Structure Experiment (RISE) that scientists will use to measure the composition of the planet's core.
"Two antennas in the spacecraft will communicate with the Deep Space Network on Earth, and by using the frequency change we can trace the location of the spacecraft with an accuracy of just a few few inches ". says Banerdt.
It's an incredible feat 200 million miles away.
"As the planet rotates with the spacecraft above it, we can find out the direction of the north pole of Mars and see how it wobbles," Banerdt added. The precise size and frequency of that oscillation over the course of a Martian year will indicate to scientists the size and density of the core of Mars.
How will InSight land on Mars?
It will take only six minutes for InSight to enter the Martian atmosphere at 14,100 miles per hour to land on its surface 80 miles below.
Controlled by small rockets during the descent, InSight will be slowed down by a supersonic parachute, will overturn its heat shield and extend three buffer legs.
Finally, it will separate from the parachute and the projectile, fire 12 downwind engines and decrease further as it touches smoothly.
At least, that's the plan. It is going to be a difficult time to control the mission as InSight is landing in the northern hemisphere in autumn on Mars, when large dust storms are common.
Either way, where InSight lands will also be its final resting place after it has completed its 26-month mission: a Martian year. You can follow InSight on Twitter .