Besides some Martian meteorites collected on Earth, some gravity data from spacecraft and other bits of information, our knowledge of the planet’s insides is small, said Bruce Banerdt, the principal investigator of a new lander called InSight, at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. But that’s about to change.
InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) will launch for Mars in March on a quick six-month journey to the Red Planet. Upon arriving at the Martian equator, the spacecraft will deploy a small drill to probe the planet’s interior and a seismometer to measure any “marsquakes” that occur.
“Mars is a really good laboratory to understand how planets form into the complex bodies they are,” Banerdt told Discovery News. This is because the lack of plate tectonics means the planet did not meld its early rocks into the interior (unlike Earth). Also, it’s big enough to have a complex interior with a core and mantle, unlike Earth’s nearby moon.
For the past two months, engineers have been testing InSight’s chops at a Lockheed Martin facility in Colorado. So far, things are going well, the company says. The contractor has decades of experience working with NASA and helps to operate two spacecraft that will relay information from InSight to orbit — Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter — and then to Earth. (MRO was recently repositioned in orbit to help with InSight’s landing.)
Testing is divided into two phases — the launch and cruise to Mars, and then the complex entry, descent and landing. Luckily for InSight, a similar system was tested before when the Phoenix lander safely made it to the surface in August 2007. But there still are a number of steps to consider, including separating the lander from the cruise shield and safely deploying the legs InSight will rest on while sitting on the surface.