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NASA's next Mars lander will understand the Red Planet and the Earth



NASA's next Mars lander, InSight, which will launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on May 5, will bring a trio of powerful instruments to measure the wobbles, quakes, and heat that show what Deep in the Red Planet is going on – and maybe they also provide insights into the origin of the Earth.

"The goal of InSight is nothing less than a better understanding of the birth of the Earth, the birth of the planet we live on," said Bruce Banerdt, Principal Investigator of InSight at JPL. "And we will do that by going to Mars, which seems a bit counterintuitive."

Banerdt spoke during a NASA press conference on Thursday (March 29) at the California Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to discuss the upcoming mission to be launched between May 5 and June 8 and at the Will arrive on Mars November 26th. [In Pictures: NASA̵

7;s InSight Lander to Probe Heart of Mars]

The mission, whose name stands for Interior Exploration with seismic surveys, geodesy and heat transport, is currently scheduled to launch at 4 pm PDT on United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on May 5. That means Skywatcher along the California coast, from Santa Maria to San Diego, should be able to see when the sky is clear, NASA officials said – and it may also be visible on the coast. (Details of the online launch are online here.)

When InSight arrives on Mars, the spacecraft will experience a dramatic 7-minute slowdown from 12,500 mph (20,000 km / h) to just 8 km / h (8 km / h). h) make. before it fell to the surface, Banerdt said. Then, within a few months, it will lower its instruments to the surface to begin its investigations.

"As we move from a ball of featureless rock into a planet that may or may not support life, a key issue in the planet is science, and these processes that do all that happen in the first ten million years are just a few seconds at the beginning of life of a planet that takes 4.5 billion years, "said Banerdt. "We would like to be able to understand what happened, and the clues are in the structure of the planet that is being built up in those early years."

While the Earth is an Active Planet, with Plate Tectonics and Other When the Martian processes disrupt their layers, the dust should be cleaner: "Mars is a smaller planet, less active than Earth, and so it has the Keep fingerprints of these early processes in its basic structure, "said Banerdt. "The thickness of the crust, the composition of the mantle, the size and composition of its core." By mapping these boundaries, these different areas of the planet's interior, we can better understand how the planet has formed and how our planet is shaped became the way he is. "

What's on Mars?

To learn about the early days of the solar system's rocky planets, InSight needs to go deep. His first key instrument, a seismometer, will measure tiny "Marsquakes" that rush through the planet. The earthquakes generated on the other side of the planet are distorted by the inside of the planet, so scientists can measure them to learn more about the composition inside. While previous missions, such as the Viking lander, carried seismometers, no one was sensitive enough to pick up these marsquakes, Banerdt said – InSight should be able to accurately measure oscillations with amplitudes as small as an atom.

Apollo astronauts measured lunar earthquakes as they explored the lunar surface, and researchers measured earthquakes every day; Banerdt assumes that the size and frequency of the Martian earthquake will be somewhere in between.

  NASA's InSight Lander will lay a seismometer on the surface to measure tiny Marsquakes that pass through the interior of the planet.

NASA's InSight Lander will place a seismometer on the surface to measure tiny Marsquakes that fly through the Red Planet, revealing clues to the planet's interior.

Credit: NASA TV / JPL-Caltech

The next investigation is a radiological experiment. The InSight instrument will be in contact with Earth's Deep Space Network radios, and by measuring the frequency shift of this communication, researchers can accurately track the location of the instrument to a precision of a few centimeters. As Mars turns on its surface with InSight, researchers on Earth can measure how the north pole of Mars shakes during the Martian year. The frequency and size of the wobble correlate with the size and density of the kernel.

For the third experiment, researchers will use InSight to measure the amount of heat that flows through the planet. Apollo astronauts did something similar by pushing a temperature probe a few inches into the lunar surface and measuring slight temperature increases on descent. The astronauts took less than half an hour to measure, Banerdt said, but the similar robotic operation on Mars will hammer the heat probe one step at a time, sending it one millimeter every three seconds. (It takes about 10,000 of these shocks to make the measurements, said Banerdt.) These data will allow researchers to understand how the heat emanates from Mars.

  A heat probe will slowly drill into the Martian surface The InSight Lander

A heat sensor will slowly bang from the InSight lander into the Martian surface.

Photo credits: NASA TV / JPL-Caltech

An interplanetary first

The precision and depth of these measurements are a novelty to Mars, and the mission has yet another approach to their homeland : It's the first planetary mission to be launched from the West Coast, says Tom Hoffman, InSight project manager at JPL. Since the mission was originally designed for a smaller spaceship, the Atlas V is strong enough to lift it from both shores – and the west had much less traffic jams, "said Hoffman at the press conference.

" Depending on where you are are in Southern California and can see the spacecraft at various points of their ascent to Mars, "he added." That should be pretty spectacular, because it's an early morning hour, so it should light up the sky and across Southern California, even in Mexico, be very visible … If you happen to get up and [with] nothing better at four o'clock in the morning, please look out your back window.

  Jamie Singer, head of InSight Instrument Development, demonstrates the instruments of the mission during a press conference on March 29.

Jamie Singer, InSight Instrument Operations Manager, demonstrates the instruments of the mission during a press conference on March 29.

Credit: NASA TV / JPL-Caltech

When Lander reaches the surface of Mars on November 26, he will have a very important first task.

InSight will land at a new location on Mars, none of us before Just like any tourist we want to photograph, "said Jamie Singer, InSight Instrument Operations Manager at JPL, a simulated Martian en Environment at JPL, where she demonstrated how the instruments are used. "InSight has two cameras for this purpose. [A] Camera on the lander's body will take the first picture we get back from Mars." Researchers will use this image, which should be available on the day the spacecraft lands to preserve the location of the land before it spreads its instruments.

The researchers were clearly optimistic as the launch date for an exciting landing approached process and priceless data on the interior of the rocky planets of the solar system.

"The first time we get an earthquake on the surface, I'll dance around the room," Banerdt said. On Viking there was a seismometer that had landed in the Graduate School, but was not sensitive enough to detect seismic data. "Throughout my career, there were all those questions I had about Mars that could only be answered with a seismograph, and when we see the first quake, that's the last, underlined, brave type – that will actually work and we will begin to get detailed information about the interior of Mars that we have been waiting for for 40, 50 years. "

" I'm not sure how I dance about you – I saw it. You dance earlier, "joked Hoffman.

InSight manages instruments and instrument components from several European partners; The French Center d'Études Spatiales led the team that built the highly sensitive seismometer, and the German Aerospace Center developed the thermal probe, NASA officials said.

Email Sarah Lewin at slewin@space.com or follow her @SarahExplains . Follow us @Spacedotcom Facebook and Google+ . Original article on Space.com .


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