NASA Readies Launch of Insight –“A Scientific Time Machine to Explore Mars’ Deepest Secrets”


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“In some ways, InSight is like a scientific time machine that will bring back information about the earliest stages of Mars’ formation 4.5 billion years ago,” said JPL’s Bruce Banerdt, principal investigator. “It will help us learn how rocky bodies form, including Earth, its moon, and even planets in other solar systems.”

According to Banerdt, the data that the Insight spacecraft will collect will “prime NASA on all the geological processes” that have persisted on Mars for the past billions of years.


This Saturday, May 5, NASA will launch the InSight mission to the Elysium Planitia on Red Planet, with the spacecraft expected to land on Mars on Nov. 26. The mission in terms of goals, goes way beyond Mars. With the data that it will collect and the analysis that will follow, scientists may be able to discover more about rocky exoplanets in general. This is impossible to do on Earth, as the lively geology of the planet has wiped out evidence of its past.


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InSight’s landing spot is Elysium Planitia, a vast expanse without any mountains or even large rocks in the area. The location was not chosen as a mistake, nor was it the only option. NASA specifically chose the vast 100-kilometer-long parking-lot nothingness of Elysium Planitia because InSight is not interested in what is on Mars’s surface, but rather what lies underneath. “Kansas without the corn,” is how Bruce Banerdt describes it.

InSight will have a seismometer to try to detect events such as marsquakes, landslides, meteor strikes, and duststorms. It will also take measurements of the thickness and composition of the planet’s crust, mantle, and core. The spacecraft will also come with a heat probe, to try to measure how much and how fast heat is escaping from Mars.

NASA’s Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight), a stationary lander, will be the first-ever mission dedicated to exploring Mars’ deep interior. It also will be the first NASA mission since the Apollo moon landings to place a seismometer, a device that measures quakes, on the soil of another planet.

For JPL’s Bruce Banerdt, principal investigator for InSight, it’s also a labor of love. Banerdt has worked more than 25 years to make the mission a reality.

InSight carries a suite of sensitive instruments to gather data and, unlike a rover mission, these instruments require a stationary lander from which they can carefully be placed on and below the Martian surface.

In a sense, Mars is the exoplanet next door – a nearby example of how gas, dust and heat combine and arrange themselves into a planet. Looking deep into Mars will let scientists understand how different its crust, mantle and core are from Earth.

NASA isn’t the only agency excited about the mission. Several European partners contributed instruments or instrument components to the InSight mission. France’s Centre National d’Études Spatiales led a multinational team that built an ultra-sensitive seismometer for detecting marsquakes. The German Aerospace Center (DLR) developed a thermal probe that can bury itself up to 16 feet (5 meters) underground and measure heat flowing from inside the planet.

“InSight is a truly international space mission,” said Tom Hoffman, project manager at JPL. “Our partners have delivered incredibly capable instruments that will make it possible to gather unique science after we land.”

InSight currently is at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California undergoing final preparation before launch. On Wednesday, it completed what’s known as a spin test: the entire spacecraft is rotated at high speeds to confirm its center of gravity.

That’s critical for its entry, descent and landing on Mars in November, Hoffman said. In the next month, the spacecraft will be mounted to its rocket, connections between them will be checked, and the launch team will go through a final training.

InSight, the first planetary mission to take off from the West Coast, is targeted to launch at 7:05 a.m. EDT (4:05 a.m. PDT) from Space Launch Complex-3 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California aboard a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket.

The Daily Galaxy via NASA/JPL

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