Just a few weeks ago, NASA’s InSight Mars lander launched from California, in hopes of getting the first in-depth look at the “heart” of Mars: its crust, mantle and core. In other words, it will be the Red Planet’s first thorough checkup since it formed 4.5 billion years ago.
NASA usually launches interplanetary spacecraft from the East Coast, at Cape Canaveral in Florida, to provide them with a momentum boost from Earth’s easterly rotation. It’s similar to how running in the direction you are throwing a ball can provide a momentum boost to the ball. If a spacecraft is launched without that extra earthly boost, the difference must be made up by the rocket engine. Since InSight is a small, lightweight spacecraft, its rocket can easily accommodate getting it into orbit without the help of Earth’s momentum. Its successful launch is the first interplanetary launch from the West Coast, and is scheduled to land on Mars on November 26, 2018.
Previous missions to Mars have investigated the history of the Red Planet’s surface by examining features like canyons, volcanoes, rocks and soil. However, many important details about the planet’s formation can only be found by studying the planet’s interior, far below the surface. And to do that, you need specialized instruments and sensors like those found on InSight.
The InSight mission, designed to operate for one Mars year (approximately two Earth years), will use its suite of instruments to investigate the interior of Mars and uncover how a rocky body forms and becomes a planet. Scientists hope to learn the size of Mars’ core, what it’s made of and whether it’s liquid or solid. InSight will also study the thickness and structure of Mars’ crust, the structure and composition of the mantle and the temperature of the planet’s interior. And a seismometer will determine how often Mars experiences tectonic activity, known as “Marsquakes,” and meteorite impacts.
The Heat Flow and Physical Properties Probe, HP3 for short, burrows down almost 16 feet (five meters) into Mars’ surface. That’s deeper than any previous spacecraft arms, scoops, drills or probes have gone before. Like studying the heat leaving a car engine, HP3 will measure the heat coming from Mars’ interior to reveal how much heat is flowing out and what the source of the heat is. This will help scientists determine whether Mars formed from the same material as Earth and the Moon, and will give them a sneak peek into how the planet evolved.
InSight’s Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment, or RISE, instrument tracks tiny variations in the location of the lander. Even though InSight is stationary on the planet, its position in space will wobble slightly with Mars itself, as the planet spins on its axis. Scientists can use what they learn about the Red Planet’s wobble to determine the size of Mars’ iron-rich core, whether the core is liquid, and which other elements, besides iron, may be present.
InSight’s seismometer is called SEIS, or the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure. By measuring seismic vibrations across Mars, it will provide a glimpse into the planet’s internal activity. The volleyball-size instrument will sit on the Martian surface and wait patiently to sense the seismic waves from Marsquakes and meteorite impacts. These measurements can tell scientists about the arrangement of different materials inside Mars and how the rocky planets of the solar system first formed. The seismometer may even be able to tell us if there’s liquid water or rising columns of hot magma from active volcanoes underneath the Martian surface.
When Insight arrives, the data we receive from the seismometer will be available on the NASA and JPL websites, and for classrooms around the world. With this data in our classrooms, we can compare how quakes on Earth compare to those on Mars!
In preparation for its launch and landing, teachers have been getting their kids excited by having their students engineer designs to keep Insight safe on its mission. Teachers like Mrs. Jayme Wisdom at Vaughn Middle School in Pacoima had her students use math to design the perfect rocket and launch angle to carry our payload to Mars. Combining several JPL Education activities, Mrs. Wisdom created an inexpensive, easy, and controlled way to get the students looking at how angle affected the range of their rockets.
Similarly, both Mrs. Wisdom and Mrs. Sukaina Husain at Country Springs Elementary, also knew that we hand to land safely, so their students also constructed landing gear to keep Insight in one piece once it arrived. Their designs made sure to give students time to test and revise, allowing students to see how to improve over time: a critical practice in the science classroom and in the Next Generation Science Standards.
Activities such as these are part of many opportunities for students to think just like scientists as they design comprehensive missions to Mars; from planning, to landing, to exploring planets in new and exciting ways. Moreover, great teachers like Mrs. Wisdom and Mrs. Sukaina add their own creative touches to the activities found at NASA Education, creating an experience tailored specifically for their future scientists.
For these and more classroom lessons, see the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab education website, located at jpl.nasa.gov/teach.
Educator Professional Development Specialist, NASA STEM EPDC
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory