Last updated May 3, 2018 at 4:22 pm
The newest mission will study the geology of the Red Planet.
NASA’s newest Mars mission, InSight, is scheduled to launch this weekend, beginning its six-month trek across the solar system to the Red Planet.
InSight (short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) is the first mission to study the heart of Mars, and will spend two years investigating deep under the planet’s surface, from the thickness of its geological layers to its rate of interior cooling.
But the InSight lander won’t be flying alone.
When it launches atop the Atlas/Centaur rocket, two cubesats will be along for the ride, ready to orbit Mars and relay data from InSight back to Earth.
The launch window, which extends for five weeks, opens on Saturday 5 May at 4:05am local time (Saturday at 9:05pm AEST). The rocket will be a rare West Coast launch, lifting off from Vandenburg Air Force Base in California.
Previous missions to Mars, such as the ones of Curiosity or Opportunity rovers, have included equipment to take samples and investigate the geology on the surface of the planet. However, the InSight Lander’s three primary instruments, SEIS, HP3, and RISE, will take the first-ever in-depth look at the planet’s “inner space”.
The Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) is InSight’s seismometer. The dome will sit on the Martian surface and wait patiently to measure the or seismic vibrations of Mars. Characterising these vibrations will allow researchers to glimpse into the planet’s internal activity, and investigate marsquakes – literally earthquakes on Mars. It will also detect thumps of meteorite impacts, and vibrations caused by weather.
By analysing the nature of these vibrations and seismic activity the researchers will be able to discover what lies far beneath the surface, including the nature and makeup of the planet, the presence of liquid water, or plumes of active volcanoes underneath the Martian surface.
InSight’s second instrument, the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Probe (HP3, HP cubed), will actually plunge itself beneath the surface to take the planet’s temperature. Burying itself almost five metres underground, it will be far deeper than any instrument ever used on another planet, moon, or asteroid.
Trailing the probe will be a ribbon-like cable packed with sensors, detecting the heat coming from Mars’ interior. This should reveal how much heat is flowing out of the body of the planet, and its source. This will help scientists determine whether Mars has a similar structure and formation to Earth and give hints as to how the planet could have evolved.
The final sensor on InSight is RISE, the Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment. Consisting of a series of antennas, it will respond to signals from Earth to measure its exact location to within a few centimetres. With that kind of accuracy, the researchers will be able to measure the minute wobble of Mars’ north pole as it orbits the Sun, being subtly pushed and pulled by the star’s gravity.
That wobble, say the scientists, reveals what is in the very core of the planet. If there is liquid at its core, it will wobble more as it spins than if it is solid. Not only will that tell us about the core of the planet, but together with the HP3 results, could help explain why the magnetic field around Mars is weaker in some places than others.
Cubesats along for the ride
The two cubesats, named MarCO or Mars Cube One, will act as relays between Insight and home, transmitting data over the 150 million kilometre gulf between Mars and Earth. Using an innovative flat X-band radio antenna, the MarCO cubesats will broadcast data using less power than traditional dish antenna systems.
However, should the MarCO cubesats not survive, InSight will be capable of sending its own data to Earth using a backup low-power antenna, as well as sending data to the orbiting Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) already circling Mars. Should the MRO be required, it will record InSight’s data and send it onwards at a later date.
The cubesats won’t be the only thing along for the ride, however. Affixed to the top of the lander is a 8 mm-square silicon wafer microchip, engraved with the names of 826,923 people who submitted their details to launch with InSight.
The names were engraved onto the tiny chip using an electron beam to write extremely small letters with lines smaller than one one-thousandth the width of a human hair. Along with the rest of the lander, the chip and the names will remain on Mars forever.
Watch from home
When InSight launches atop the ULA Atlas rocket crowds of people will be lining the surrounding area watching. But you can also tune in from home via the Mars InSight website.