This weekend NASA will launch its next mission to Mars, but this one will be a little different than the previous ones. Unlike the rovers Curiosity and Opportunity, both still actively examining rocks and sand on the surface, the new InSight lander won’t go anywhere. It will stay in one spot and focus on “peering down” below the surface to study the crust, mantle and core. The mission will look at the “heart” of Mars, to learn more about how the planet first formed and evolved into the world we see today.
Liftoff is scheduled for no earlier than 4:05 a.m. PDT on May 5, 2018, aboard a workhorse ULA Atlas V 401 rocket. The launch window is generous however, and the spacecraft can be launched any day between May 5 and June 8. Regardless of when it launches, InSight will land in Elysium Planitia on Mars on November 26, 2018.
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While most spacecraft are launched from the east coast (and all interplanetary missions), to give them a “momentum boost” from the Earth’s natural eastern rotation, InSight will be launched from Space Launch Complex-3 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. InSight is small and light enough that it doesn’t require that extra boost, the Atlas V is that powerful and reliable, plus the Eastern Range is busy these days so Vandenberg is more available to accommodate InSight’s five-week launch window. It will be the first planetary mission ever launched from the west coast.
“If you live in Southern California and the weather is right, you’ll probably have a better view of the launch than I will,” said Tom Hoffman, project manager for NASA’s InSight mission from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “I’ll be stuck inside a control room looking at monitors – which is not the best way to enjoy an Atlas 5 on its way to Mars.”
Truth is, however, that the weather forecast is not favorable at all for spectators hoping to see a May 5 launch attempt. Meteorologists with the U.S. Air Force 30th Space Wing at Vandenberg predict only a 20% chance of favorable weather for liftoff on May 5, concerned primarily with launch visibility (Range Safety).
“After lift-off from Vandenberg’s Space Launch Complex 3, the Atlas V begins a southerly trajectory and climbs out over the Channel Islands off Oxnard,” said Tim Dunn, launch director for the Launch Services Program at the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “If you live on the California Central Coast or south to L.A. and San Diego, be sure to get up early on May 5, because Atlas V is the gold standard in launch vehicles and it can put on a great show.”
On Mars, the mission is expected to last at least 708 sols (Mars days, equivalent to 728 Earth days).
So just what makes this mission so unique? The answer is in the full name – Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight). InSight will land in a fairly flat region by necessity, which may seem disappointing compared to the stunning scenery seen by the current rovers Curiosity and Opportunity, but for this mission, the science is mostly underground. The lander will be the first robotic mission to explore what is inside of Mars rather than just what is on the surface, using various instruments to examine the crust, mantle and core of the planet. It will look at Mars’ “vital signs” – its “pulse” (seismology), “temperature” (heat flow) and “reflexes” (precision tracking). It will search for signs of current tectonic activity (marsquakes) and meteorite impacts. InSight’s seismometer, the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) could even detect liquid water or active volcanic activity beneath the surface. Scientists don’t yet know just how active Mars is deep underground, but InSight will help to finally answer many of those questions. This will also aid researchers in understanding how smaller rocky planets like Mars and Earth form and evolve, even those in other solar systems.
“InSight’s investigation of the Red Planet’s interior is designed to increase understanding of how all rocky planets, including Earth, formed and evolved,” said Bruce Banerdt, InSight Principal Investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. “Mars retains evidence about the rocky planets’ early development that has been erased on Earth by internal churning Mars lacks. Gaining information about the core, mantle and crust of Mars is a high priority for planetary science, and InSight was built to accomplish this.”
The main objectives of the mission include:
- Determine the size, composition, physical state (liquid/solid) of the Martian core
- Determine the thickness and structure of the Martian crust
- Determine the composition and structure of the Martian mantle
- Determine the thermal state of Mars’ interior
- Measure the magnitude, rate and geographical distribution of Mars’ internal seismic activity
- Measure the rate of meteorite impacts on the surface of Mars
The design of InSight is very similar to a previous lander, the Mars Phoenix Lander, which landed near the Martian north pole in 2007, and utilizes much of the same technology. The Phoenix mission was very successful, including finding patches of water ice only a few centimeters below the surface. Unusual droplets on one of the lander’s legs are even thought to have been small drops of very briny water, something never seen before on Mars.
InSight is not very large, but it carries an impressive array of instruments, including:
- Grapple – Mechanism at the end of the IDA that grips the instruments during deployment
- Heat Flow Probe – Hammering mechanism that pulls the temperature sensors down into the regolith
- HP3 – Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package, the heat flow experiment
- IDC – Instrument Deployment Camera, pointable medium-resolution camera
- IDA – Instrument Deployment Arm
- ICC – Instrument Context Camera, fixed wide-angle camera
- Pressure Inlet – Wind-shielded opening for pressure sensor
- RISE Antenna – X-band radio antenna for the Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment
- SEIS – Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure, the seismometer
- Tethers – Cables carrying electrical power, commands and data between the lander and instruments
- TWINS – Temperature and Winds for InSight, environmental sensors
- UHF Antenna – Antenna used for communication with orbital relay spacecraft
- WTS – Wind and Thermal Shield protecting the seismometer from the environment
Besides InSight itself, there will also be two other probes along for the ride to Mars – two briefcase-size satellites, or CubeSats, called Mars Cube One (MarCO), and nicknamed “Wall-E” and “Eva.” They will travel behind InSight and arrive just in time for the landing. MarCO will act as a relay, sending data back to Earth about the entry, descent and landing of InSight, perhaps faster than ever before. Even if they fail for some reason, InSight can still use the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter as a relay to Earth.
“These are our scouts,” said Andy Klesh of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and MarCO’s chief engineer. “CubeSats haven’t had to survive the intense radiation of a trip to deep space before or use propulsion to point their way towards Mars. We hope to blaze that trail.”
Geoff Yoder, acting associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate in Washington, sums up the mission this way:
“Our robotic scientific explorers such as InSight are paving the way toward an ambitious journey to send humans to the Red Planet. It’s gratifying that we are moving forward with this important mission to help us better understand the origins of Mars and all the rocky planets, including Earth.”
More information about InSight is available on the mission website.