New Mars Lander to Probe Interior of Red Planet

The U.S. space agency, NASA, recently gave the green light for the construction of a new Mars lander that will examine the deep interior of the Red Planet.

The new Mars mission is called the Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigation Geodesy and Heat Transport, which is why everyone knows it by its acronym: InSight. The mission's spacecraft is scheduled to launch from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base in March 2016 and due to arrive on Mars later that year, in September.

Bruce Banerdt, from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is the InSight's principal investigator. He said that some of the technology the lander will use to study the interior of Mars is similar to what geologists have been using to study the Earth.

"The idea behind it is to use some geophysical instruments, mostly a seismometer and a heat-flow probe to better understand the interior structure of Mars, both its composition, layering, what's going on inside, stuff like that," said Banerdt.

InSight's study of the interior of Mars may not only provide a fresh look into the creation of our own planet but also other Earth-like planets located within and beyond our solar system.

"We really want to understand how the terrestrial planets, the rocky planets, formed early on in the solar system, and how that formation sort of led to the kinds of conditions we have on the surface," said Banerdt.

Unlike the popular Curiosity and Opportunity rovers that are traveling across Mars, the InSight will be sent to a location near the Red Planet's equator and remain stationary to conduct its research.

Banerdt said that the new Mars lander will map out the geography of the deep Martian interior.

"And by that I mean how thick is the crust, what's the crust made out of? And then how big is the core, what is it made out of? What are the thermal characteristics of everything in terms of the heat flow, energy production? Things like that," said Banerdt.

An image from NASAs Mars rover Curiosity shows the surface of the planet in this NASA handout released on Jan. 15, 2013. /Reuters An image from NASA's Mars rover Curiosity shows the surface of the planet in this NASA handout released on Jan. 15, 2013. /Reuters

◆ Multinational Effort

The spacecraft will carry a bevy of sophisticated new instruments to carry out its mission. The space agencies of Germany, France, Switzerland and the United Kingdom are providing two of the most important tools for the mission.

Among InSight's instruments is a seismometer that will measure and analyze seismic waves that shake the ground, mostly due to quakes.

Another tool aboard the Mars lander is a heat-flow probe that will burrow itself down about 4.5 to 5 meters beneath the planet's surface. The device will measure small increases in temperature as it tunnels further into the crust of Mars. Banerdt said this tool will allow his research team to figure out how much heat is coming from the planet's interior.

"This heat flow is what drives a lot of the geology: it drives volcanism; on Mars, it can drive uplift of mountain ranges; and so the amount of heat coming out of it is a basic parameter that we need to learn in order to find out how active a planet is," said Banerdt.

And, one important tool that will be used to conduct InSight's research isn't really an instrument, but rather, a radio on the spacecraft that will send out signals that will be tracked here on Earth by project scientists.

Following the signal produced by the radio sitting on the rotating planet will allow the research team to watch Mars rotate on its axis and actually watch that axis "wobble a little bit."

"The size of that wobble tells us about the distribution of material inside the planet.  So by using an analysis of this wobble, we can tell the details of the core. Because that’s what really drives the magnitude of these wobbles -- it's the size of the core, its density, and whether it's solid or liquid," said Banerdt.

The new Mars lander will also be equipped with a weather station and camera that will provide further information about the Red Planet.

InSight's mission is expected to last for about one Mars-year or two Earth years.

By better understanding what's behind the interior of Mars, Banerdt said that scientists will be able to get a better idea of what the Earth might have looked like very early in its history.

VOA News / May 29, 2014 08:00 KST