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The following article was posted on May 9th, 2018, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 19, Issue 10 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 19, Issue 10

Gaining InSight: New NASA Mars mission promises to unlock red planet's origins

By SPENCER COLE

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena sent out a familiar message in the predawn hours of May 5. "We have lift off," the broadcast announced as its newest mission—aptly titled "InSight," which promises to reveal the interior structure of Mars—blasted out of Earth's orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base and into the vast reaches of space, beginning its six-month journey to Earth's cold, dead, red neighbor.

And while many views from California's Central Coast were obscured by a thick curtain of fog that Saturday morning, the significance of the launch was felt near and far—and not just due to massive rocket boosters firing up.


NEXT CHAPTER
Now that NASA’s InSight Mission has completed its launch portion from Vandenberg Air Force Base, it is headed on a six-month journey to Mars, where it is expected to land on the planet’s surface sometime around Thanksgiving.
PHOTO COURTESY OF NASA /CORY HUSTON

"This mission will probe the interior of another terrestrial planet, giving us an idea of the size of the core, the mantle, the crust, and our ability then to compare that with the Earth," NASA's Chief Scientist Jim Green announced two days earlier during a media briefing. "This is of fundamental importance for us to understand the origin of our solar system and how it became the way it is today. ... This mission I view as 'feed-forward' to human exploration on Mars."

According to NASA and JPL officials, the InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) mission will revolve around the lander using two main instruments—a seismometer and a heat probe (the Heat Flow and Physical Properties package). The seismometer will be used to measure the red planet's seismic activity, or "marsquakes," and by doing so will help scientists ascertain Mars' planetetary thickness and what the interior is composed of. The heat probe—which is described by the mission's engineers as a "self-hammering nail"—should show JPL just how much internal heat the planet possesses or produces.

Farah Alibay, a systems engineer at JPL for four years, told the Sun the experiments set to be performed on the red planet are the very same the Apollo astronauts did on the Moon in the late '60s and early '70s.

She said NASA chose to study Mars partially because it was the easiest rocky planet the agency could get to.

"It's really about understanding how planets are formed, and what we are interested in finding out really is why is Mars so different from Earth and what will that tell us about rocky planets in general," she added.

Bruce Banerdt, InSight's principal investigator at NASA's JPL, referred to the mission to Mars as a unique opportunity.

"We call it the 'goldilocks planet,'" he said. "It went through different processes than Earth did—about 120 million years after forming, all those processes kind of stopped, but all those fingerprints left behind, that's why we want to measure fundamental parameters of the deep interior."

According to Alibay, the main difference between the two planets is that Mars doesn't actually evolve geologically as much as Earth does. The culprit? A relative lack of active geologic processes, and more importantly, any signs of tectonic plates—or moving pieces of a planet's crust that float above a liquid-like mantle.

"If you are looking at Mars, the surfaces and features that you are looking at are actually much older than they are on Earth," Alibay explained. "And part of that has to do with there is no tectonic plates, so there is no subsiding of plates, or mountains being formed or anything like that, so that in a way is the reason why you're really looking back through time when you are looking at Mars."

In fact, NASA scientists believe that at most, the red planet most likely has one massive tectonic plate. "There are distinct features when you have [multiple] tectonic plates," Alibay said, adding that there was uncertainty at JPL if "marsquakes" would even be measurable to humans without precise instruments.

Alibay noted how Mars used to have a magnetic field like Earth, which protects planets from cosmic radiation. "So what happened? We have a magnetic field on Earth because we have a metal liquid core, so figuring out what happened on Mars might give us a clue about how our own planet evolved," she said.

NASA officials stated for years leading up to the mission that InSight would also give scientists a better idea of how exoplanets are formed and what kind of features lead to having an atmosphere, magnetic field, and tectonic plates.

"By generating this more general theory, we are then able to understand other rocky planets much better, so in the grand scheme of possibly finding another Earth-like planet, that really fits into that whole story," Alibay said.

Chief Scientist Green also pointed to InSight's importance for human exploration.

"Here in California in particular you know we need to be able to build the structures necessary to withstand the environments that we are in—this is a very quake-prone area of the country—but how quake prone is Mars? That's fundamental information that we need to know as humans to then explore Mars," he said, adding that the measurements in heat differential would be essential to developing livable habitats for future humans. "We know the temperature on Mars in one day and it has a 170 degree Fahrenheit change (from day to night).

"We have to be able as humans, living on Mars, working on Mars, to survive that."

The InSight mission is a product of collaboration between JPL, which headed operations, and Boeing and Lockheed Martin's United Launch Alliance, which provided the Atlas 5 rocket that carried the craft into space. The Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris in France and German Aerospace Center constructed InSight's measuring instruments.

The mission also marks the first time cube satellites have been launched to another planet. For this mission, the two small satellites will help provide a communication link between JPL and InSight on the planet's surface. Alibay told the Sun the CubeSat portion of the mission was strictly a "tech demo," and even if the satellites were to fail, it would have no impact on InSight's success.

"We'll have to see what happens," she said, adding that she has helped work on the satellites since their inception four years ago. "A lot of people in the CubeSat community are looking at this mission to be a sort of pioneer and to see what they can achieve. Once we know the capabilities, we can start dreaming even bigger."  

Staff Writer Spencer Cole can be reached at scole@santamariasun.com.




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