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Thunder In The Fog: Why NASA’s InSight Mission Is Truly Poetic

Thunder In The Fog: Why NASA’s InSight Mission Is Truly Poetic

InSight, the recent Mars mission by NASA, landed on 27 November 2018 after a 205-day journey in space. It stands out among all the other NASA’s missions because it would look into the red planet in ways that no mission so far has ever looked. It gains the attention that it receives because of the fact that it is going to contribute to understanding how the rocky planets, including Earth, could have formed and evolved and Mars stands as the best candidate to do that because it is neither too big nor too small, compared to the other planet, which implies that it preserves the record of its formation and forms the perfect laboratory to study the formation and evolution of rocky planets, like our own.

“The InSight team can rest a little easier tonight now that we know the spacecraft solar arrays are deployed and recharging the batteries,” said Tom Hoffman, InSight’s project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, which leads the mission. “It’s been a long day for the team. But tomorrow begins an exciting new chapter for InSight: surface operations and the beginning of the instrument deployment phase.” Bruce Banerdt, Principal Investigator of the mission wrote a launch haiku: “Thunder in the fog, I leave my planet of birth. Mars seems still — for now.”

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Mission Objectives

There are primarily two main objectives of the InSight mission:

  1. Understanding the planet’s formation and evolution
  2. Determining the level of tectonic activity.

Here is a list of things that the mission is expected to work on:

  • Marsquakes: InSight’s primary goal is to find out how seismically active the red planet is. Is it going to look at its core, measure the core size and other interior layers. Due to this, it will rely on the marsquakes. Over a couple of upcoming months, it would deploy its instruments like seismometer to measure the quakes on the planet both due to the planet’s own spasms and those resulting from meteor impacts. It is going to measure seismic waves from the marsquakes and meteorite strikes from an instrument called using an instrument called the Seismic Experiment for Internal Structure (SEIS). Since the seismic waves change speeds depending on what material they travel through, it will provide information regarding the material that the planet is made of. It is the first time that Mars has a seismometer, is extremely sensitive and can sense these waves from anywhere on the planet. This unique property also helped it land at a safe place on the surface.
  • Heat release: Another task that the mission has is to measure how much heat is releasing from its core. To do this, another instrument will be deployed to measure the temperature of its interior which will help to understand how planets are put together and how do they evolve. It is expected to find the heat trapped in the interior of the planet since the first time that it was formed, using an instrument called Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3).
  • Shield: The seismometer also has a shield to protect it from violent winds on the planet. It has a protective dome to protect the planet from winds and also provides a shield to the contrasting temperature differences that the planet faces and which on contact with the instrument can largely damage it.
  • Wobble: It has another instrument called Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment (RISE) which has two X-band antennas. This instrument is dedicated to studying the wobble of the planet. The wobble could tell whether the planet core is liquid or solid, which might further explain the planet’s thin magnetic field. It does this by tracking the rotation of the lander to determine the amount of wobble that the planet’s North pole has gone through, as it does a revolution around the Sun, providing more information about the planet core, also indicating whether other elements besides iron is present in the core. It tracks the wobble of the pole as the sun pushes and pulls it in its orbit.

NASA’s InSight spacecraft flipped open the lens cover on its Instrument Context Camera (ICC) and captured this view of Mars. Bottom right: One of InSight’s footpads. Top left: Seismometer tether box. Image source: NASA.


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The Story So Far

The rover has provided the first ever ‘sounds’ of Martian winds on Mars. Its two very sensitive sensors, which includes an air pressure sensor and a seismometer on the deck, captured a haunting low rumble caused by vibrations from the wind, estimated to be blowing between 10 to 15 mph, from northwest to southeast. The air pressure sensor, part of the Auxiliary Payload Sensor Subsystem (APSS), which will collect meteorological data, recorded these air vibrations directly. The seismometer recorded lander vibrations caused by the wind moving over the spacecraft’s solar panels.

“Capturing this audio was an unplanned treat,” said Banerdt. “But one of the things our mission is dedicated to is measuring motion on Mars, and naturally that includes motion caused by sound waves.”

InSight’s success so far makes the science community more hopeful about the red planet’s deep ‘insights’ that it will give, since its formation 4.5 billion years ago. Its landing was also chosen such that the surface is flat and the rocks are less, at a place named Elysium Planitia. A slope too steep could foil the robotic arm’s access to a sufficiently large work area. A sufficiently steep slope in the wrong direction could jeopardize how much power the solar arrays can produce. A large enough rock at the landing site could block one of the solar arrays from opening. The mission surely stands out in terms of its objectives and time will tell what all discoveries it makes in the future.







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