NASA's InSight lands on Mars: First robot geologist to study Marsquakes, meteorite impacts and what constitutes rocky planets

NASA's InSight lander is packed with instruments to study Mars' interiors for "vitals" and Marsquakes.

On 26 November 2018, NASA's InSight became the seventh in a series of Mars missions to successfully land on the planet's surface. The probe was sent by NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab scientists to study the planet's deep interior, and how planets like Mars and Earth form and evolve.

Cheers and applause filled the mission control room as the agency's newest lander brought a happy end to a 7-year journey from design to launch to landing.

The probe event sent back its first image from the planet's surface, just minutes after its landing, to ensure the mission control back on Earth that the probe found firm footing and landed as planned.

The first image of Mars taken by NASA's InSight Mars lander after its successful landing on the 'aprking lot'-like Elysium Planitia on 26 November, 2018. The dust seen in the image is a dust cover protecting its camera till InSight sends back a signal assuring the team it has landed in a safe spot. Image courtesy: NASA JPL

The first image of Mars taken by NASA's InSight Mars lander after its successful landing on the 'parking lot'-like Elysium Planitia on 26 November, 2018. The dust seen in the image is a dust cover protecting its camera till InSight sends back a signal assuring the team it has landed in a safe spot. Image courtesy: NASA JPL

Over the next two years, the probe will scan the rocky planet’s interiors and measure how many quakes and meteorite impacts Mars experiences over the mission’s duration.

Mars InSight, or the ‘Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport’, is NASA’s first landing probe built to study Mars’ interiors in-depth.

InSight lander on Mars: All you need to know

Earlier missions to study Mars, like Curiosity, Opportunity and Spirit missions, have been tasked with studying different surfaces on the planet — canyons, volcanos, rocks and soil. InSight is the first ever probe sent to study Mars’s geology and internal structure in detail – crust, mantle, core and all.

The InSight lander is a stationary probe, unlike earlier rovers. It will start and end its mission in its current spot at the Elysium Planitia — a massive plain along Mars’ equator a few hundred kilometres from an ancient Mars volcano. Staying put is central to the probe’s science goals, which requires a still and silent window into the planet’s interior over a very long period of time.

From the data InSight collects and relays, NASA scientists hope to learn how rocky planets (like Mars, Mercury, Venus and Earth in our solar system) formed 4.5 billion years ago.

The lander will also use some specially-designed sensors to pick up on Mars’ “vitals”: its pulse (seismic activity), its temperature (flow of heat under the surface) and its “reflexes” (precision tracking). These are a few of the key aspects to understanding the evolutionary history and building blocks of a planet, NASA said in a statement.

Why study Mars’ interiors?

In terms of all the features required to study planet formation, Mars fits the bill, according to NASA:

  • Getting a 'complete’ record of rocky-planet geology: Mars has fewer earthquakes and lesser geological activity than Earth does. This gives scientists a closer look at the planet’s undisturbed, more ‘complete’ record — specifically, how signatures from the planet’s core, mantle and crust that indicate how it formed and changed in the 4.5 billion years since the Big Bang.
  • Mars as a model for planets in the habitable ‘Goldilocks zone’: The size, structure and distance of Mars from the Sun make it a ‘Goldilocks’ planet, capable of hosting life in theory. On Mars, InSight will study the size and composition of the planet’s different layers, allowing scientists to get a closer look at how a Goldilocks planet might form and evolve.
  • How geologically active Mars really is: So far, scientist are aware that Mars has low levels of geological activity, but no idea as to how active Mars really is. InSight is equipped to listen for tremors, whether from Marsquakes, meteorite impacts, or volcanic activity, over the mission’s two-year duration.
The many tools on NASA's first expert Martian geologist, InSight. Image courtesy: NASA JPL

The many tools on NASA's first expert Martian geologist, InSight. Image courtesy: NASA JPL

InSight’s science instruments

The Mars lander is packed with three instruments to look at Mars’ depths:

  • The Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS): To pick up on any seismic activity from meteorites hitting the planet, moving magma and Marsquakes.
  • The Heat Flow and Physical Properties Probe (HP3): To dig 5 metres into the surface and pick up heat signatures from Mars’ dusty surface. It will provide precise data on how much heat escapes the planet’s interior, a vital sign of a planet that also indicates the destiny of Mars’ future: how quickly its core energy is diminishing.
  • The Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment (RISE): It will look at the size and composition of Mars’ core. The RISE instrument will use the lander’s location and pings from Earth’s satellites to accurately measure Mars’ angle and speed of rotation.
  • Laser Retroreflectors: The InSight mission also has another non-essential fitting – a set of 8 laser reflectors on its top surface. While this isn’t part of InSight’s science missions, it will reflect any incoming long-range light signals back to its source. With its location known and unchanging, scientists intend to make use of the reflectors in laser-light experiments in astronomy and planetary science on Earth.

The first CubeSats in deep space

NASA’s InSight spacecraft had companions on its journey to Mars till it began its descent: two small, twin box satellites called Mars Cube Ones (MarCOs). The MarCOs were designed to quickly transmit updates during and after InSight’s tricky landing on the Red Planet.

By successfully making the trip, the MarCOs are now the first category of small, box satellites (called CubeSats) to make an interplanetary trip into deep space. NASA used the InSight mission to test the possibility of a ‘bring-your-own’ communication relay for future missions to Mars. It may also open up many new and inexpensive ways to study our solar system, NASA said in a statement.

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