insight probe

Nasa’s InSight spacecraft set to probe beneath the surface of Mars

Image credit: nasa

Nasa’s next Mars probe is set to launch on Saturday with a mission to discover more information about the internal workings of the red planet.

The probe, dubbed Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight), will be equipped with a seismometer and a burrowing heat probe which will allow it to study the planet’s early geological evolution. It will also perform a radio science experiment to study the internal structure of Mars.

The spacecraft will take the planet’s pulse by making the first measurements of ‘marsquakes’ and in order to check its reflexes, scientists will track the wobbly rotation of Mars on its axis to better understand the size and make-up of its core.

The lander’s instruments will allow scientists “to stare down deep into the planet”, said Bruce Banerdt, the mission’s chief scientist from Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Beauty’s not just skin deep here,” he added.

The billion-dollar (£734m) US-European mission is the first such mission dedicated to studying the innards of Mars.

Scientists hope to better understand how the Red Planet - and any rocky planet, including our own - formed 4.5 billion years ago.

Mars is smaller and geologically less active than Earth, where plate tectonics and other processes have conspired to obscure our planet’s original make-up. As a result, Mars has retained the “fingerprints” of early evolution, said Banerdt.

In another first for the mission, a pair of briefcase-sized satellites will launch aboard InSight, break free after liftoff, then follow the spacecraft for six months all the way to Mars.

They will not stop at Mars, but will fly past. The point of this operation is to test the two CubeSats as a potential communication link with InSight as it descends to the surface of the Red Planet on 26 November 2018.

These Mars-bound cubes are nicknamed Wall-E and Eve after the animated movie characters, because they are equipped with the same type of propulsion used in fire extinguishers to expel foam. In the 2008 Pixar movie, Wall-E used a fire extinguisher to propel himself through space.

InSight is scheduled to rocket away from central California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base early on Saturday, in Nasa’s first interplanetary mission launched from somewhere other than Florida’s Cape Canaveral.

E&T recently posted an infographic detailing the InSight mission and its technology on our Wordpress blog site.

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