InSight is the first mission to Mars focused on probing the planet’s interior and discover what mysteries lie beneath. Though the lander won’t move, it will drill five meters deep into the Martian surface, further down than we have ever gone before. We know Mars is colder than Earth, but patterns of heat flow can reveal whether the planet is an efficient thermal conductor or not, and that helps scientists understand its interior composition.
To accomplish this feat, the lander will deploy a small probe which will hammer a hole in half-meter increments until it hits bedrock beneath the rocky outer layer of Mars’ surface. As it descends, the mole will measure the heat emanating from the planet’s interior.
InSight’s primary mission on the surface is to last nearly two years. When the research efforts get underway, it will attempt to answer a variety of questions: How often does the ground shake with “Marsquakes”? (Marsquakes are similar to Earthquakes) Just how big is the molten core within Mars? How thick is the crust? How much heat is flowing up from the decay of radioactive elements at the planet’s core?
Ancient fault lines and asteroid impacts send seismic waves surging through Mars, which InSight can detect and measure. These readings are like indirect snapshots of the Martian interior and contain information about its structure and composition which are valuable to researchers.
In the months ahead, InSight will begin its study of the Martian underworld, with the aim of helping scientists understand how the planet formed, lessons that could help also shed light on Earth’s origins. It will listen for “Marsquakes” and collect data that will be pieced together in a map of the interior of the red planet.
The main scientific part of the mission will not begin for some time. During its first five to six weeks on the ground, InSight’s managers will largely be checking the health of the spacecraft, including its robotic arm to ensure good working order and the success of the mission.
The seismometers, which are designed to measure surface movements less than the width of a hydrogen atom, will produce what are essentially sonograms of the planet’s insides. In particular, scientists are looking to record at least 10 to 12 “Marsquakes” over two years.
Unlike on Earth, tremors on Mars are not caused by plate tectonics. Instead they are generated when the planet’s crust cracks because of its interior’s cooling and shrinking. The seismometers could also detect other seismic vibrations from meteors hitting Mars.
On the surface, NASA currently has the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers, although solar-powered Opportunity has been quiet since the summer when a global dust storm prevented it from generating enough power to operate. NASA is hoping that Opportunity will revive now the skies have cleared.
And the year 2020 could get busier, when NASA is planning to launch another rover, similar to Curiosity but with a different set of instruments that will search for the building blocks of life. In addition to these missions, China, Japan, the United Arab Emirates and India also intend to launch a spacecraft to Mars in 2020. When we’ll get humans on Mars is anyone’s guess.