The American space agency NASA recently approved plans for building a new Mars lander. NASA officials want the new lander to study the deep interior, or inside surface, of the Red Planet.
The new project is called InSight. The name comes from a much longer term: The Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations Geodesy and Heat Transport. NASA officials plan to launch the Mars lander from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California in March of 2016. It is expected to arrive on Mars six months later.
Bruce Banerdt works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. He is the InSight’s lead investigator. He says some of the technology the Mars lander will use on Mars is similar to what scientists have been using to study 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.”
Bruce Banerdt says InSight’s study of Mars may provide new information about how our own planet was created. He says it may also tell about other Earth-like planets.
“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.”
NASA officials have no plans to send the new lander on trips across the Red Planet. The InSight will instead be sent to an area near the Martian equator. It will stay there to carry out research.
Bruce Banerdt says the lander will gather information about the geography, the natural and physical qualities, of the inner planet.
“And by that I mean how thick is the crust, what’s the crust made out of? And then how big is the core, and what is it made out of? What are the thermal characteristics of everything in terms of the heat flow, energy production? Things like that.”
The spacecraft will carry a number of new instruments on the trip.
The space agencies of four European countries are providing two of the most important tools. One is a seismometer that will measure and study seismic waves that shake the ground. Another tool is a heat-flow probe that will reach about 4 ½ to 5 meters under the Martian surface. The device will measure small increases in temperature as it digs underground.
Bruce Banerdt says this tool will help scientists find how much heat is coming from the 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.”
The new Mars lander will also be equipped with a weather station and a camera. Insight’s work is expected to last about one Mars year or two Earth years. I’m Jonathan Evans.