NASA is about to launch a mission to Mars. But don’t get your space suit zipped up just yet: The trip is for a solar-powered lander, not people.
The NASA inspection kit is named InSight, and it’s a 794-pound Martian lander. InSight (which stands for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) is set to blast off for Mars from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base at around 4 a.m. PT on May 5, 2018.
Scientists at NASA say the lander will give the red planet a 4.5-billion-year-overdue “checkup.” InSight has three main objectives on Mars: taking the planet’s temperature, measuring its size, and monitoring for “marsquakes.”
Take a look at what the roughly $US828 million mission will do:
It will take about six months for the InSight lander to travel the roughly 301 million miles from southern California to Martian soil.
NASA says“the launch may be visible in California from Santa Maria to San Diego” if conditions are clear.
InSight will be hoisted aboard an Atlas V rocket along with a couple of tiny, toaster-sized cube satellites that will fly separately to Mars.
It will all weigh about 730,000 pounds when the launch fully fuelled and ready for blastoff.
If everything goes according to plan, InSight will land on Mars on November 26, 2018.
The last minutes of its journey travelling down into the Martian atmosphere will be the trickiest, as the lander slows down from around 12,500 miles per hour to 5 miles per hour in just seven minutes.
InSight will use a parachute and fire off thrusters to help itself slow down as it approaches the red planet. The legs of the machine are also shock absorbers.
Once InSight has touched down firmly on the Martian ground, it will get to work examining the rocky surface of Mars. InSight scientists hope the lander will help them gain a better understanding of how all rocky planets, including Earth, formed.
The lander won’t move around on Mars like a rover. Instead, it’s more like an unmanned research station.
According to NASA, InSight “carefully places its instruments on the Martian surface.”
InSight will land in a spot on Mars called “Elysium Planitia,” roughly 4.5 degrees north latitude and 135.9 degrees east longitude. It’s a relatively flat place, close to the Martian equator.
After the roughly 20-foot-long lander touches down, it will soon start drilling its heat probe into the Martian soil. That will take about two months.
NASA calls the device “a self-hammering heat probe.”
InSight’s probe, which is roughly one and a half stories tall, will check the temperature below the surface of Mars.
It will burrow up to 16 feet into Martian soil, measuring how much heat comes out of the planet for the first time.
InSight will also be on the lookout for marsquakes.
If Earth has earthquakes, then Mars must have marsquakes, right? But quakes on Mars are much more mysterious than earthquakes, which scientists know are usually caused by shifts in Earth’s tectonic plates.
Scientists think marsquakes could be caused by other types of tectonic activity, like volcanism, cracks in the planet’s crust, or even meteorite impacts.
NASA tried studying marsquakes once before with the Viking landers in the late 1970s. But their shake-measuring instruments sat on top of the landers, and often swayed in the wind.
“I joke that we didn’t do seismology on Mars, we did it three feet above Mars,” Bruce Banerdt, InSight’s principal investigator, said.
Scientists expect to observe dozens if not hundreds more quakes during the time that InSight is sitting on Mars.
The lander uses this roughly 7-foot-long robotic arm to move put the marsquake detector (seismometer) and its heat probe on the ground.
But there’s a third important instrument included on InSight. A pair of antennas and a radio transmitter will record how much the planet shakes and wobbles as it orbits.
That will help scientists learn more about Mars’ iron-rich core – they hope to find out how big the core is and whether it’s a liquid or solid.
NASA went on a similar mission to examine Mars about 10 years ago. The Phoenix mission landed on the planet in 2008.
It lasted for only five months before it ran out of sunlight.
Phoenix wasn’t designed to withstand the dark and frigid Martian winter, when temperatures can dip hundreds of degrees below zero (Fahrenheit). But InSight is ready for the cold.
InSight will spend more than one Mars year completing its investigation. That’s equivalent to two Earth years, minus a couple days.
On Mars, days are measured as Sols. InSight will stay for 708 of those Mars days, but in Earth terms it will be there for 728 days.
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