As early as 4:05 a.m. PDT on May 5th, those on the West Coast of the United States will have the chance to witness an interplanetary launch for the first time. The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket will carry NASA’s InSight spacecraft into orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base, near Lompoc, California.
InSight, which stands for Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, is a lander bound for the Elysium Planitia region in Mars’s Northern hemisphere. There, it will gather data on the crust, mantle and core of Mars. It will also listen for tectonic activity and meteorite impacts.
Though the launch represents the beginning of InSight’s expedition, in another way, it is the end of a long journey. NASA delayed the lander’s original launch in 2016 after discovering a problem with a key instrument. This second chance at the mission gives planetary scientists another opportunity to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
As the date of the launch approaches, planetary scientists are gearing up for a wealth of new information that will provide clues into how rocky planets form, show how Mars evolved over time, and provide one of the most complete records of regional weather on Mars that we’ve ever had. These experiments could shed light on the history of the Earth and other rocky planets in the cosmos, as well as lay groundwork for future human exploration of the Red Planet.Scientists are looking to gather information on the basic structure of Mars—for example, the thickness of its crust and the composition of its mantle and core. These discoveries will give insight into the formation of rocky planets in general because, unlike Earth, the underlying crust of Mars appears to have been stable for the life of the planet, says Bruce Banerdt, InSight principal investigator and a research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
While none of the material in the Earth’s core is more than 100 million years old, Banerdt explains that there is evidence that Mars hasn’t undergone a major reworking since 4.2 to 4.3 billion years ago. “The deep interior is relatively pristine,” he says.
Three Key Experiments
To look inside Mars, InSight will conduct three major experiments.
- The Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) is a seismometer that will monitor quakes and internal activity, allowing scientists to draw conclusions about the history and structure of the Red Planet.
- The Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) will measure how much heat is coming from the interior of the planet, how heat flows underground, and paint a picture of how heat has been driving geologic and internal processes under the surface. Banerdt says this gives scientists an idea of how the interior of Mars has evolved over time.
- Finally, the Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment (RISE) will use radio signals between the lander and Earth to detect “rotational wobbles,” which reveal properties of the core and the way the core interacts with the mantle.
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A New Way to Place Instruments
The InSight mission will use robotics in a new way to position its instruments. Previous spacecraft have attached instruments to a robotic arm, which could then bring them to targets and retract them afterward. InSight, on the other hand, will need its instruments placed permanently. “This science is really about getting data for a long time in the same place,” says Jaime Singer, InSight instrument deployment lead.
To do that, scientists will spend the initial 55-90 sols after landing mapping out the terrain around the lander and using a robotic arm to grasp instruments off the deck of the lander and install them on the surface of the planet.
“We’re basically going to play the claw game on Mars with no joystick,” she says. The team will get daily information from the lander, which they’ll use to work out sets of instructions to send. “It may sound slow, but it’s really exciting,” she says. “Every day, we get pictures from Mars and we get to see something new or different that happened.”
“This has been my dream for almost 30 years,” says Banerdt.
He was in graduate school in the 1970s when NASA’s Viking landers attempted to collect seismic data from Mars, and was even relying on that data to reveal the thickness of Mars’s crust. Unfortunately, Viking’s seismic results weren’t usable—the seismometer wasn’t placed on the surface of the planet, which rendered its data too noisy.
Since then, Banerdt put in more than a half dozen mission proposals, hoping to get new data for the scientific investigations that had been languishing since Viking. InSight was his dream project, but Banerdt’s dream almost didn’t come true.
In December 2015, InSight’s team discovered a tiny leak in the vacuum system associated with the seismometer, from a crack that was just nanometers across. “If you had that leak on your tire, it would take 50 years before you’d lose one psi on your tire,” Banerdt says. Unfortunately, it was enough to ruin the precision of the measurements the team planned to take, and ultimately, to force the mission to be delayed.
“It was a tough pill to swallow,” Banerdt says. He was concerned that NASA would tell him he’d had his chance and blown it. However, he and the team persisted, proposing what the fix would require, and showing they knew how to redesign the instrument effectively, “and that we wouldn’t leave them at the altar again.”
Ultimately, they convinced NASA that they had the problem in hand, and that the science was compelling enough to continue the mission. NASA went to Congress for special dispensation to increase the mission costs by $150 million.
Banerdt and the team took advantage of the extra design time. Instead of merely fixing the leak, they redesigned the vacuum system entirely. They also took the opportunity to reevaluate other parts of the lander, particularly those that had raised questions in other missions.
“By the time we get to 2018, we actually have a much stronger mission than we would have had in 2016,” Banerdt says.
All Systems Go
Every previous interplanetary mission has launched from the East Coast, which allows the rocket to get a speed boost from the Earth’s rotation while flying over water. An unexpected benefit of InSight’s delayed launch, however, is that the Atlas V, the smallest rocket NASA currently has available, has twice the capability of the rocket that InSight was originally designed for. This means the rocket won’t need help from the Earth’s rotation to lift InSight, Banerdt explains, and it opens up the possibility of launching from the West Coast instead.
This avoids a “traffic jam” of satellite launches, Banerdt says, but it also makes it possible for approximately 10 million people in a new region to view the launch in person. “Having hundreds of different videos [of the launch] on YouTube is going to be really cool,” he adds.
Assuming clear weather, InSight’s launch will be visible in person from Santa Maria, California, to San Diego, California. NASA provides information on both official viewing sites and informal viewing sites on a launch page. For those not on the West Coast, NASA will stream the launch online at NASA.gov/live, which will be mirrored directly below the day of the launch. Video of the launch will be available on demand later at YouTube.com/NASAJPL/live and Ustream.tv/NASAJPL.
The launch window for InSight begins at 4:05 a.m. PDT on May 5th and runs through June 8th. Those who witness the rocket’s progress through the sky in the early morning hours can decide whether to wave goodbye or hello. In either case, it will be a moment to watch.
Mission overview: https://mars.nasa.gov/insight/mission/overview/
More information on InSight: https://planetarymissions.nasa.gov/missions/InSight/details
Technical specifications on the robotic arm: https://mars.nasa.gov/insight/mission/lander/arm/
In-depth webcasts about the Mission: https://mars.nasa.gov/insight/multimedia/webcasts/
Information on all Mars missions: https://mars.nasa.gov/
Launch information page: https://mars.nasa.gov/insight/mission/timeline/launch/watch-in-person/
Studying Mars with rovers and landers has become routine, but what would it take to settle the Red Planet? Check out our FREE guide, Martian Homes and Gardens, to find out!