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NASA Is Launching Its Latest Mars Lander To Study 'Marsquakes'

May 04, 2018 09:35 PM EDT
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NASA scientists are ready to launch an unmanned lander named InSight to Mars in order to study the naturally occurring marsquakes in the planet.

InSight, which stands for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, is set to launch on Saturday, May 5 at 7:05 a.m. EST from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. It's expected to land on Mars on Nov. 26.

It will be the first lander launched to Mars since the Curiosity rover in 2012.

InSight To Study Planet Origins

Billions of years ago, Earth and Mars were both formed, likely through similar processes and primordial ingredients. Now, the two neighboring planets are wildly different, and scientists want to find out why.

"How we get from a ball of featureless rock into a planet that may or may not support life is a key question in planetary science," Bruce Banerdt, InSight principal investigator, says. "We'd like to be able to understand what happened."

It is difficult to get to the bottom of things on Earth, as the processes have been buried under billions of years of earthquakes and movement of molten rock. Scientists are hoping to find more clues in Mars, which is less geologically active.

"Earth has plate tectonics, so its initial crust is essentially gone, it's all been recycled," Suzanne Smrekar, the mission's deputy principal investigator, explains. "Mars gives us an opportunity to see the materials, the structure, the chemical reactions that are close to what we see in the interior of Earth, but it's preserved from the first 10 million years [of the solar system]. It gives us a chance to go back in time."

Marsquakes

Seismic waves traveling past the crust, mantle, and core are an effective way of finding out more about Earth's layers and what it's made up of. It's the same with Mars, so InSight will be staying put in the heart of Mars' Elysium Planitia and waiting for marsquakes to occur.

The mission, which will be about two Earth years, is expected to observe up to 100 marsquakes.

Three instruments will be involved in trying to gather information for NASA, including a French-made seismometer, a device to keep track of InSight's location, and a self-hammering probe monitoring the flow of heat in Mars' subsurface.

Along with the lander, two mini-spacecraft dubbed Mars Cube One, or MarCO, will also be making the journey. The pair will be flying behind InSight and are meant to test new small deep space communications equipment.

If the twin spacecraft reaches Mars, the MarCO satellites will be able to relay the data from the InSight back to Earth. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been orbiting the Red Planet since 2006, will also be getting information from InSight.

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