- NASA’s Mars InSight lander hit the red planet’s surface on Tuesday morning.
- The robot will scan for Mars quakes, the Martian version of Earthquakes.
- It will also give scientists a better idea of what the planet has been up to for the past 4.5 billion years.
- Here’s a rundown of everything the lander can do.
After seven years of development, NASA just put a solar-powered lander on Mars.
The robot is named InSight, which stands for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport. The 794-pound laboratory hit Martian soil on Tuesday, after nearly seven months of whizzing through space.
On Mars, InSight will pursue three main goals: taking the planet’s temperature, measuring its size, and monitoring for Mars quakes. Scientists at NASA say this work is kind of like giving the red planet a “checkup.”
Here’s what the roughly $US828 million mission could accomplish.
It took about six months for the InSight lander to travel 301 million miles from southern California to Mars.
NASA launched InSight from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base on May 5.
InSight was hoisted aboard an Atlas V rocket along with a couple of tiny, toaster-sized cube satellites that flew to Mars as well. They’re called MarsCubeOne, and they helped relay InSight landing data back to Earth.
The rocket weighed about 730,000 pounds once it was ready for blastoff (including the fuel and payload).
InSight landed on Mars at approximately 7am AEDT Tuesday morning.
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The last minutes of its journey to the Martian surface were the trickiest. The lander had to slow down from around 12,500 miles per hour to 5 miles per hour in just seven minutes.
InSight used a parachute and fired thrusters to slow itself down as it approached the red planet. The legs of the machine also functioned as shock absorbers.
InSight landed in a spot called Elysium Planitia, which is relatively flat and close to the Martian equator. The roughly 20-foot-long lander will not move around like a rover.
Instead, it’s more like an unmanned research station. InSight scientists hope the lander will give them a better understanding of how all rocky planets, including Earth, formed.
InSight is equipped with a suite of sensitive instruments to gather data. Those tools “require a spacecraft that sits still and carefully places its instruments on the Martian surface,” according to NASA.
InSight will hammer a heat probe up to 16 feet deep into the Martian soil. The process will take about two months.
It will take 20,000-30,000 hammer strokes for the device, which NASA calls a “self-hammering heat probe,” to reach its final depth.
The heat probe will check the temperature below the surface of Mars, giving scientists information about how much heat comes out of the red planet for the first time.
InSight will also be on the lookout for Mars quakes.
If Earth has earthquakes, then Mars must have quakes, too. But quakes on Mars are more mysterious than earthquakes, which are usually caused by shifts in Earth’s tectonic plates.
Scientists think Mars quakes could be caused by other types of tectonic activity, like volcanism, cracks in the planet’s crust, or even meteorite impacts.
Scientists expect to observe dozens if not hundreds of quakes during the time that InSight sits on Mars.
NASA tried studying Mars quakes once before with its Viking landers in the late 1970s. But their 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.
The lander will use this roughly 7-foot-long robotic arm to put the Mars quake detector (seismometer) and the heat probe onto the ground.
A third important instrument on InSight is a pair of antennas and a radio transmitter that will record how much the planet shakes and wobbles as it orbits.
That data will help scientists learn more about Mars’ iron-rich core; they hope to find out how big the core is and whether it’s liquid or solid.
“The planets of the inner solar system…all share the same basic structure with a dense iron core, a rocky mantle, and then a crust of lighter silicate rocks,” Banerdt said.
He hopes that new data about the thickness, size, and composition of those layers will help scientists better understand why Mars turned out so different than Earth.
NASA undertook a similar mission to examine Mars about 10 years ago. The Phoenix lander arrived on the red planet in 2008.
Phoenix wasn’t designed to withstand the dark and frigid Martian winter; it lasted for only five months before it ran out of sunlight. But InSight is ready for the cold – even temperatures hundreds of degrees below zero Fahrenheit.
InSight will spend more than one Mars year completing its investigation. That’s equivalent to two Earth years, minus a couple of 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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