NASA’s InSight Mars mission

Life on Mars: The lander also has two chips containing the names of 2.4 million people. © NASA

Mars has captivated the human imagination for hundreds of years. NASA’s InSight mission is currently giving the planet “its first thorough check-up since it formed 4.5 billion years ago”.

  • What is InSight?

    NASA’s InSight mission took off from California in May 2018, and landed on Mars on 26 November. Specifically, it landed in a region called Elysium Planitia. This is a large, flat space near the equator of Mars, with few big rocks and no mountains in sight. The mission’s chief scientist, Bruce Banerdt, described it as: “the biggest parking lot on Mars”.

  • What is it looking for?

    Before InSight, there were already eight spacecrafts either orbiting or roaming around Mars. They are studying the planet’s surface and atmosphere, searching for signs of life, taking incredible photographs and analysing the geology.

    InSight planned to go deeper. It is trying to build a clearer picture of what Mars is like underneath the surface. How deep are the crust, mantle and core? How hot is it down there? Where do its marsquakes come from? (Marsquakes are like earthquakes — only on Mars.)

  • How is it doing all of that?

    Three ways. Firstly, there is a seismometer that measures the quakes, as well as looks out for any landslides, meteorite strikes, dust storms or other exciting activity. It is so sensitive that it can detect vibrations smaller than an atom.

    Secondly, there is a heat flow probe (nicknamed “the mole”) to burrow beneath the surface in order to take the planet’s temperature.

    Thirdly, a radio experiment is tracking the planet’s rotation and trying to understand its interior.

  • Is it going well?

    Not exactly. That “mole” burrowing into the surface? It has become stuck in some difficult Martian soil. NASA had hoped it would be several feet below the ground by now — but, instead, it has made it just 12 inches. Now, scientists are trying to find a way to get it unstuck again. On Earth, this would be simple. Three hundred million miles away on Mars, it is much more difficult.

    Other aspects of the mission are going well though. In April 2019, it detected a marsquake for the first time.

  • Why does any of this matter?

    Unlike Earth, Mars has not changed much since the two planets formed around 4.5 billion years ago. According to Banerdt, that means there are still “fingerprints” of its early evolution in its interior. How did the planet form? How did it become what it is today? Answering these questions about Mars will offer insights into how all rocky planets formed, including Earth.

  • And… will it find life?

    NASA is not specifically looking for life this time — there are other probes and landers doing that job right now. However, what it learns about Mars could be useful in the search for Earth-like exoplanets in other solar systems. Finding as many of these as possible will certainly help with humanity’s quest to find some friends elsewhere in the universe.

  • When can we move up there?

    Not for a while yet. However, studying Mars’s crust and the effects of its marsquakes will help NASA understand if the planet is at all habitable. The space agency is currently planning to send humans to Mars in 2033.

    However, NASA has competition. Elon Musk is planning to send people to Mars on his largest rocket by 2024. He plans to build “a thriving city” and, eventually, an entire colony there.

    Russia and China are both planning to send people there after 2040.

  • Is that a good idea?

    Living on Mars would be tough, especially at first — there is no water to help grow food; the average temperature is -55°C, and you might die of radiation exposure.

    That doesn’t put everyone off though. As Musk put it, “I think if you’re going to choose a place to die, then Mars is probably, you know, not a bad choice.”

You Decide

  1. Would you like to live on Mars?

Activities

  1. Research one of the other missions currently studying Mars. Then, create your own diagram (similar to the one at the top of this article), explaining how it works. There are links to help you under Become An Expert.

Word Watch

InSight
This is short for “Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport”.
Crust
The planet’s hard, rocky surface. Earth’s crust ranges between three to 43 miles deep.
Mantle
The planet’s middle layer. Unlike Earth, it is believed to be mostly solid, which is why there have been no volcanic eruptions for millions of years.
Core
The planet’s dense inner layer, thought to be made of iron, nickel and sulphur. Unlike Earth’s core, scientists do not think it moves, as the planet does not have a magnetic field.
Marsquakes
These could come from meteorite strikes or tectonic activity, which refers to the movement of tectonic plates.
Meteorite strikes
Mars has a thin atmosphere, which is why it has so many meteor strikes. On Earth, meteors often burn up in the atmosphere, creating shooting stars.
Elon Musk
Founder of the private space company SpaceX.

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