NASA has launched many groundbreaking missions to Mars, but its next mission will do so literally.
The Mars InSight lander, planned for launch May 5, will be the first spacecraft dedicated to studying the deep interior of the red planet. It could unlock hidden secrets about the structure of Mars, how it evolved and how other rocky planets — including Earth — came to be.
“The goal of InSight is nothing less than to better understand the birth of the Earth, the birth of the planet that we live on, and we’re going to do that by going to Mars,” said Bruce Banerdt, InSight’s principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge.
Short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, InSight will be the first spacecraft to land on a planet since Curiosity on Mars in 2012. When it touches down Nov. 26 in a flat plain just north of the equator called Elysium Planitia, it will unfurl its solar arrays and deploy a set of instruments designed to interrogate the planet’s insides.
The lander will use its robotic arm to place a seismometer on the surface. It will pick up the vibrations from marsquakes — seismic waves that have been modified by the layers of material they have passed through. Those altered waves will allow scientists to determine what material makes up those layers.
InSight will also hammer a probe about 16 feet beneath the surface. The deeper the probe goes, the higher the temperature rises — which can be used to calculate how hot Mars’ deep interior really is.
It also will measure the shift in radio signals between it and Earth to figure out how much Mars’ north pole wobbles over the course of a Martian year, which will reveal clues about the planet’s core.