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NASA InSight Lander to Explore the Inner Space of Mars

ULA Atlas V will launch spacecraft from Vandenberg, AFB in May

InSight will give Mars its first thorough check up since the planet formed 4.5 billion years ago. (NASA)

NASA’s newest discovery mission InSight will launch this spring to begin the first extensive exploration of the Red Planet’s internal structure.

The Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy, and Heat Transport, or InSight, is scheduled to lift-off for the Red Planet and into a predawn sky on May 5 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, and land six months later upon the Martian plains of Elysium Planitia.

Launch officials will have only 35 days to launch the spacecraft during a period in which the Earth and Mars are perfrctly aligned. This mission will mark the first interplanetary mission to launch from the West Coast.

NASA’s InSight Mars lander in a Lockheed Martin clean room recently near Denver. (LMSS)

Taking the Temperature and Pulse of Mars

NASA hopes the spacecraft will provide new insight into several key questions such as does Mars have a liquid or solid core, and learn about the planet’s internal motions including the Sun’s effect on the fourth planet from our closest star.

“We will be landing a static lander and the main purpose is to deploy a seismometer instrument to see if there are any quakes on Mars,” Dr. Charles Elachi, former director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at CalTech explained to this aerospace reporter. “More importantly to use that signal from the quake to look at the internal structure of Mars, it’s core and how does it compare to Earth.”

The geophysical lander and it’s instruments were built by both American and international aerospace companies. Lockheed Martin Space Systems constructed and tested the lander, and the German Aerospace Center is responsible for building the HP3 heat probe. France’s space agency built the spacecraft’s seismometer known as SEIS which will measure seismic waves inside the Red Planet.

NASA’s JPL will instruct the lander to drill down into Mars to take the first internal temperature readings of another planet.

“Think of InSight as Mars’ first health checkup in more than 4.5 billion years,” said InSight Principal Investigator Dr. Bruce Banerdt from JPL. “We’ll study its pulse by ‘listening’ for marsquakes with a seismometer. We’ll take its temperature with a heat probe. And we’ll check its reflexes with a radio experiment.”

InSight will drill deep into the interior of Mars, and will record the planet’s pulse and temperature. (NASA)

InSight to Deploy Ground Breaking Science Experiments

InSight’s 2.4 meter long robotic arm will place three science payloads onto the surface during the first 60 days. The first, a heat flow probe, will drill straight down to about five meters to learn how much heat is moving up toward the surface. These observations will offer a deeper understanding if Earth and Mars have a similar internal structure. The first drill motion into the surface is planned for late March 2019.

Later, the robotic arm will place two seismometers onto the surface in which one will look for and record any Marsquakes occurring from within in the crust, or caused by meteorite impacts on the surface. A second seisometer will record the planet’s surface wind.

The new lander will feature two engineering color cameras. One camera is mounted on the robotic arm between the elbow and the wrist, and will provide a 45-degree field of view, and record a panoramic view of the Martian surface. The second camera is mounted on the front of the lander and will provide a 120-degree fisheye view of the two deployed science payloads.

Spacecraft’s Voyage will Cover 485 million kilometers

The launch window for the United Launch Alliance Atlas V 401 is May 5 thru June 8, and will have a two-hour opportunity each day. After orbit insertion and InSight’s seperation from the Centaur upper stage, two briefcase-sized CubeSats will seperate from the rocket’s upper stage and begin to trail InSight.

The objective of Mars Cube One will be to transmit data on InSight during its entery into the Martian atmosphere and landing. This will be a first test of sending two CubeSats to another planet, and will become a test bed for future missions.

Following a six month, 485 million km voyage to the Red Planet, the spacecraft will enter the Martian atmosphere at a speed of 14,100 miles per hour. Based on the exact launch date inside its window, InSight is expected to touchdown upon the flat plain at Elysium Planitia (4.5° N, 135.9° E), located just north of the Martian equator, on Nov. 26. JPL assures that even a launch delay of one to three weeks will still have InSight land the Monday after Thanksgiving at about 3:00 p.m. EST.

InSight is expected to operate for at least two Earth years (728 days) or one Martian year (708 sols). Dr. Banerdt acknowledged that InSight is part of a legacy of robotic exploration which will lay the groundwork for sending humans to Mars in the 2030s.

(Charles Atkeison reports on aerospace and technology. Follow his updates via social media @Military_Flight.)


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Charles Atkeison

Written by Charles Atkeison

Charles A Atkeison is a long time aerospace journalist having covered both military and civilian aviation, plus 30 space shuttle launches from Cape Canaveral. He has produced multimedia aerospace content for CNN, London's Sky News, radio, print, and the web for twenty years. From flying with his father at age 5 to soaring as a VIP recently with the Navy's Blue Angels and USAF Thunderbirds, Charles continues to enjoy all aspects of flight.

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