Here’s what NASA’s new mission InSight will do on Mars

Pablo Tucker
December 3, 2018

The goal of the instrument is to provide a definitive measurement of the heat still flowing out from the interior of Mars.

In recent days, NASA has been commanding the spacecraft to make minor course corrections to ensure InSight enters the Martian atmosphere at the proper angle to within about a quarter of a degree.

The Lander had originally been scheduled to blast off in March 2016, but NASA suspended its launch preparations when a vacuum leak was found in the craft's prime science instrument. The Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) can detect ground vibrations that are smaller than a hydrogen atom, providing an unprecedented picture of the tectonic activity and geologic shifting of Mars.

Meanwhile, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will record the entry, descent, and landing of InSight in real time, but because of planetary dynamics, that spacecraft won't relay that information back to Earth for about three hours.

The the twin Mars Cube One project (MarCO) spacecrafts flying over Mars with Earth and the sun in the distance.

"It's taken more than a decade to bring InSight from a concept to a spacecraft approaching Mars - and even longer since I was first inspired to try to undertake this kind of mission", said Bruce Banerdt of JPL, InSight's principal investigator. We've spent years testing our plans, learning from other Mars landings and studying all the conditions Mars can throw at us.

Its landing won't be quite as nail-biting as Curiosity's, but it is still risky, said the mission's deputy lead, Sue Smrekar, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

InSight landed on what seems to bea very boring part of Mars, known as Elysium Planitia. The InSight lander is aiming for what scientists and engineers hope is flat plain on the red planet.

Unlike Opportunity and Curiosity, the rovers that trundle across Mars in search of interesting rocks, InSight is created to sit and listen. It should take about six minutes for InSight to get to the surface and land, slowed by a parachute and descent engines.

NASA's InSight lander is about to touch down and will immediately begin to decipher the secrets that lie beneath the Martian soil. As seismic waves ripple through, they will be distorted by changes in the materials they encounter - plumes of molten rock or reservoirs of liquid water - revealing what's under the planet's surface.

Viewing parties are planned coast to coast at museums, planetariums and libraries, as well as in France, where InSight's seismometer was designed and built. The heat probe will measure how much heat is escaping from the planet, and how quickly-a clue to when it was most volcanically active.

InSight is the first dedicated to unlocking secrets from deep below the Martian surface.

It will take two to three months for InSight to start conducting science, explained Elizabeth Barrett, science system engineer for the mission. There are two almost identical MarCO spacecraft that launched with InSight last May and have been trailing the probe on its flight to Mars. Its mission is to study the interior of the planet. Along the way, we will obtain images and signals from other craft that are buzzing around the planet now.

For this instrument alone, the entire mission is dubbed the "Mars seismological mission".

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