When it comes to planetary exploration Mars is everybody’s golden child, it seems.
The Spirit and Opportunity rovers had us enthralled for many years, Phoenix stunned us with its hurry-up-before-you-freeze-to-death science mission, and currently the Curiosity rover is quite the superhero of extraterrestrial explorers — it even has its own Twitter account and posts updates regularly!
But as you’ve probably guessed, Mars exploration hardly stops there. In fact, the next visitor to the Red Planet is already starting to make headlines. So, Our Space readers — meet InSight, due to launch in 2016. Oh, how we love our acronyms! InSight is short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport. Clever, no?
Unlike Curiosity, however, InSight is not a rover. It will set up shop wherever it lands — more like Phoenix. And unlike Phoenix, its mission isn’t to go out there and explore various Martian environments, but to stay put and take the Red Planet’s pulse.
InSight is a geophysical mission. Its purpose is to find out how Earth and Mars fundamentally differ in their makeup and physical activity. It will measure seismic tremors or “Marsquakes,” take precise temperature readings and figure out how solar activity causes the entire planet to wobble on its axis, all of which will help us in understanding the processes that shaped the rocky planets of the inner solar system (including Earth) more than 4 billion years ago.
It will land on Elysium Planitia, a broad flat plain near the equator and feel, listen and observe quietly. Well, mostly quietly, anyway. What’s so cool about InSight is that it will actually drill down into the planet’s crust to about 15 feet to take temperature readings at depth.
While our knowledge about the Martian surface is growing every day with what the rovers are exploring we know very little about the internal workings of the planet. Measuring seismic activity can lead to data about whether or not Mars has a liquid core, how thick its crust is, and how often meteorites strike the Martian surface. Every impact will generate seismic data which in turn may answer questions about the composition of the planet itself.
But that’s not the end of it, of course. Future missions will also explore the Martian atmosphere - stay tuned for more information on MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN) and Europe’s Trace Gas Orbiter, both slated for launch in the same year! So for all of you Mars fans out there: 2016 is going to be a very big year for you!
Be ahead of the curve and educate yourself about InSight at its nicely done webpage at http://insight.jpl.nasa.gov/home.cfm. As always, Our Space will make sure you are always ahead of the curve with what’s up in space!
Beate Czogalla is the Professor of Theater Design in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Georgia College & State University. She has had a lifelong interest in space exploration and has been a Solar System Ambassador for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory/ NASA for many years. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.