NASA sending robotic geologist to Mars to dig super deep

May 2, 2018 by Marcia Dunn
This illustration made available by NASA in 2018 shows the InSight lander drilling into Mars. InSight, short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, is scheduled to launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base on Saturday, May 5, 2018, and land on Mars six months later. (NASA via AP)

Six years after last landing on Mars, NASA is sending a robotic geologist to dig deeper than ever before to take the planet's temperature.

The Mars InSight spacecraft, set to launch this weekend, will also take the planet's pulse by making the first measurements of "marsquakes." And to check its reflexes, scientists will track the wobbly rotation of Mars on its axis to better understand the size and makeup of its core.

The lander's instruments will allow scientists "to stare down deep into the planet," said the mission's chief scientist, Bruce Banerdt of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

"Beauty's not just skin deep here," he said.

The $1 billion U.S.-European mission is the first dedicated to studying the innards of Mars. By probing Mars' insides, scientists hope to better understand how the red planet—any rocky planet, including our own— formed 4.5 billion years ago.

Mars is smaller and geologically less active than its neighbor Earth, where plate tectonics and other processes have obscured our planet's original makeup. As a result, Mars has retained the "fingerprints" of early evolution, said Banerdt.

In another first for the mission, a pair of briefcase-size satellites will launch aboard InSight, break free after liftoff, then follow the spacecraft for six months all the way to Mars. They won't stop at Mars, just fly past. The point is to test the two CubeSats as a potential communication link with InSight as it descends to the red planet on Nov. 26.

NASA sending robotic geologist to Mars to dig super deep
In this March 1, 2018 photo made available by NASA, technicians and engineers inspect the heat shield for NASA's InSight, spacecraft, inside the Astrotech processing facility at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport probe is scheduled to launch from Vandenberg on Saturday, May 5, 2018. (Daniel Herrera/USAF 30th Space Wing/NASA via AP)

These Mars-bound cubes are nicknamed WALL-E and EVE after the animated movie characters. That's because they're equipped with the same type of propulsion used in fire extinguishers to expel foam. In the 2008 movie, WALL-E used a fire extinguisher to propel through space.

InSight is scheduled to rocket away from central California's Vandenberg Air Force Base early Saturday. It will be NASA's first interplanetary mission launched from somewhere other than Florida's Cape Canaveral. Californians along the coast down to Baja will have front-row seats for the pre-dawn flight. (7:05 a.m. EDT/4:05 a.m. PDT)

No matter the launching point, getting to Mars is hard.

The success rate, counting orbiters and landers by NASA and others, is only about 40 percent. The U.S. is the only country to have successfully landed and operated spacecraft on Mars. The 1976 Vikings were the first landing successes. The most recent was the 2012 Curiosity rover.

InSight will use the same type of straightforward parachute deployment and engine firings during descent as Phoenix lander did in 2008. No bouncy air bags like the Spirit and Opportunity rovers in 2004. No sky crane drop like Curiosity.

NASA sending robotic geologist to Mars to dig super deep
This illustration made available by NASA in 2018 shows the InSight lander drilling into Mars. InSight, short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, is scheduled to launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base on Saturday, May 5, 2018, and land on Mars six months later. (NASA via AP)

Landing on Mars with a spacecraft that's not much bigger than a couple of office desks is "a hugely difficult task, and every time we do it, we're on pins and needles," Banerdt said.

It will take seven minutes for the spacecraft's entry, descent and landing.

"Hopefully, we won't get any surprises on our landing day. But you never know," said NASA project manager Tom Hoffman.

Once on the surface, InSight will take interplanetary excavation to a "whole new level," according to NASA's science mission director Thomas Zurbuchen.

A slender cylindrical probe dubbed the mole is designed to tunnel nearly 16 feet (5 meters) into the Martian soil. A quake-measuring seismometer, meanwhile, will be removed from the lander by a mechanical arm and placed directly on the surface for better vibration monitoring. InSight is actually two years late flying because of problems with the French-supplied seismometer system that had to be fixed.

In this April 23, 2018 photo made available by NASA, a crane is used to lift NASA's InSight Mars lander for installation atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. InSight is scheduled for liftoff May 5, 2018. (Leif Heimbold/NASA via AP)

The 1,530-pound (694-kilogram) InSight builds on the design of the Phoenix lander and, before that, the Viking landers. They're all stationary three-legged landers; no roaming around. InSight stands for "Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport."

InSight's science objectives, however, are reminiscent of NASA's Apollo program.

Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Apollo moonwalkers drilled up to 8 feet (2.5 meters) into the lunar surface so scientists back home could measure the underground flow of lunar heat. The moon still holds seismometers left behind by the 12 moonmen.

Previous Mars missions have focused on surface or close-to-the-surface rocks and mineral. Phoenix, for instance, dug just several inches down for samples. The Martian atmosphere and magnetic field also have been examined in detail over the decades.

"But we have never probed sort of beneath the outermost skin of the planet," said Banerdt.

NASA sending robotic geologist to Mars to dig super deep
In this Jan. 23, 2018 photo provided by Lockheed Martin Space via NASA, technicians inspect the InSight lander during a test of the expansion of its solar arrays in Denver, Colo. Six years after last landing on Mars, NASA is sending a robotic geologist to dig deeper than ever before to take the planet's temperature. (Marina Behabetz/Lockheed Martin Space/NASA via AP)

The landing site, Elysium Planitia, is a flat equatorial region with few big rocks that could damage the spacecraft on touchdown or block the mechanical mole's drilling. Banerdt jokingly calls it "the biggest parking lot on Mars."

Scientists are shooting for two years of work—that's two years by Earth standards, or the equivalent of one full Martian year.

"Mars is still a pretty mysterious planet," Banerdt said. "Even with all the studying that we've done, it could throw us a curveball."

Explore further: NASA ready to study heart of Mars

Related Stories

NASA ready to study heart of Mars

March 30, 2018

NASA is about to go on a journey to study the interior of Mars. The space agency held a news conference today at its Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, detailing the next mission to the Red Planet.

NASA InSight mission to Mars arrives at launch site

March 1, 2018

NASA's InSight spacecraft has arrived at Vandenberg Air Force Base in central California to begin final preparations for a launch this May. The spacecraft was shipped from Lockheed Martin Space, Denver, today and arrived ...

Another chance to put your name on Mars

October 4, 2017

When it lands on Mars in November of 2018, NASA's InSight lander will be carrying several science instruments—along with hundreds of thousands of names from members of the public.

Recommended for you

New evidence for existence of Planet Nine

May 21, 2018

A large international team of researchers has found what they are describing as more evidence of the existence of Planet Nine. In their paper posted on the arXiv preprint server, the group describes the behavior of a newly ...

Two bright high-redshift quasars discovered

May 21, 2018

Astronomers have detected two new bright quasars at a redshift of about 5.0. The newly found quasi-stellar objects (QSOs) are among the brightest high-redshift quasars known to date. The finding was presented May 9 in a paper ...

First interstellar immigrant discovered in the solar system

May 21, 2018

A new study has discovered the first known permanent immigrant to our Solar System. The asteroid, currently nestling in Jupiter's orbit, is the first known asteroid to have been captured from another star system. The work ...

5 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

FredJose
1.4 / 5 (9) May 02, 2018
By probing Mars' insides, scientists hope to better understand how the red planet—any rocky planet, including our own— formed 4.5 billion years ago.

This is of course the crux of the matter - the assumption that Mars ( and other rocky planets ) "formed" all by themselves with no outside help from clouds of dust and gas about 4.5 billion years ago. This probe will not live up to expectations in that regard because it just didn't happen that way. However, it is still a scientific quest and will yield some interesting results nevertheless.

I can only wait for the "surprising" discoveries that will emerge from this probe.
Spacebaby2001
3.7 / 5 (3) May 02, 2018
Fred, if and only if they dig a few meters deep and discover the planet is composed of billions upon billions of lolcats version of the bible, then I will bow to you as THE supreme source of all wisdom and knowledge. Have a wonderful day!
mackita
1 / 5 (1) May 02, 2018
IMO these money are wasted - we should research another objects only at the moment, when we can utilize this information in economic way. But apparently too many people could fill their pockets with it already... BTW There are rumors that Mars mission may be curtain call for plutonium-powered spacecraft.
doogsnova
1 / 5 (1) May 02, 2018
WCFTSATFM
Prism day = Coin day
Thorium Boy
1 / 5 (1) May 03, 2018
Want to have lots of money to do really good missions? De-orbit that money-pit the ISS and drop it in the Pacific.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.