On November 26th, Mars InSight arrived on Mars ready to explore the surface and subsurface of the planet. Unlike Curiosity, InSight is not a rover, but rather a lander similar to the Phoenix lander that studied the soil in Mars’ polar regions. Insight aims to continue the work of Phoenix by analyzing the interior of Mars to understand how it may have formed.
Mars InSight stands for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy, and Heat Transport, which gives an overall summary of its tools and instruments. The first tool is a robotic arm that places the various instruments on the ground. There are also a few cameras mounted on the lander, one on the main body of the lander with a fisheye lens and a camera on the arm that can take 360-degree views of the Martian surface. The lander camera gives an overall angle of all the experiments being performed, while the arm camera can adjust its view. (1)
In total, there are three scientific instruments: a seismometer, a heat flow probe, and a radio science experiment.
The seismometer measures the vibrations generated by various activities on Mars such as “marsquakes,” meteorite impacts, and possible dust storms or wind. This instrument will also be able to determine what kind of materials lie underneath the surface of Mars and if there is water or other liquids trapped in the ground. Scientists can see a difference in material when the seismic waves pass through materials at different rates. (2)
The second instrument is a heat flow probe, which measures the interior temperature of Mars. This instrument is especially interesting as it drills down to 16 feet below the Martian surface to take temperature measurements. This is the first time that a spacecraft has ever drilled to such a depth, and the data that will come from this probe will be beneficial in the study of Mars’ formation. The heat probe is incredibly sensitive as it will be able to measure heat coming from deep beneath Mars. (3)
The final scientific instrument is a radio science experiment known as RISE. The experiment locates the InSight lander to approximately a few inches and sends a signal back to Earth with the location. At first this may seem as a redundant experiment since InSight has no capability of moving across the surface of Mars, but there is a very practical reason for the experiment. This precise measurement of the location will allow scientists to determine if there is a wobble in Mars’ rotation. On Earth the wobble is apparent in the yearly changes of the location of the magnetic poles. A wobble would signify that there is a liquid core; however, scientists are not sure whether Mars’ core is liquid or solid and this experiment will help determine that. (4)
Overall, Mars Insight is a very important step in figuring out the Martian history in terms of geology. Its advanced scientific instruments will help us look into Mars itself in ways that previous landers and rovers have not been able to.
On an unrelated note, keep in mind that the New Horizons spacecraft is almost at Ultima Thule and will be sending information back to us in January. I will be sure to summarize this data on The Student Scientist as it comes out. Meanwhile, you can check out my article on the upcoming mission to Ultima Thule.