On Monday (Nov. 26), Mars fans around the globe will watch eagerly to see NASA land a new mission called InSight on the Red Planet — but for the scientists who built the mission, the real excitement will just be getting started.
That’s because the $850 million InSight mission has an ambitious slate of scientific tasks to accomplish during its time at work on the surface, which is planned to last about two years. While plenty of orbiters, landers and rovers have sought to understand Mars’ surface and atmosphere, InSight — or more formally Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport — will be the first to turn its gaze inward.
With just three main instruments aboard the lander, the team has carefully designed the mission to tackle a big mystery: What’s hiding beneath the Martian surface — geologically, that is. That makes InSight stand out from the string of missions that have gradually looked at the possibility of life on Mars throughout the planet’s history, most recently the Curiosity rover and the upcoming Mars 2020 rover. [NASA’s InSight Mars Lander: Full Coverage]
InSight has three main projects that will structure its time on Mars.
First, it carries a seismometer decked out with a suite of environmental sensors. You may be familiar with seismometers from their work here on Earth detecting tremors in the ground, and InSight’s will perform a similar task, sensing hypothesized shakes in the ground that scientists call marsquakes, as well as tremors triggered by meteorite impacts.
But terrestrial seismometers build up a dense network of instruments, helping scientists pinpoint what’s causing the shakes those instruments feel. InSight’s seismometer will be the only quake sense on all of Mars, so scientists had to rig the instrument to make sure they could still get the data they need. They’ll also be hoping to see as many shakes as possible to maximize the data they can use and its precision.