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InSights mission

Date: 27 February 2020 Tags: Space

Issue

It’s now more than a year since NASA’s InSight lander mission touched down on Mars on November 26, 2018. This week, NASA published a set of six papers  to reveal a planet alive with quakes, dust devils and strange magnetic pulses.

 

Background

The InSight mission is part of NASA’s Discovery Program. It is being supported by a number of European partners, which include France’s Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES), the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and the United Kingdom Space Agency (UKSA).

 

Details

  • InSight is the first mission dedicated to looking deep beneath the Martian surface. Among its science tools are a seismometer for detecting quakes, sensors for gauging wind and air pressure, a magnetometer, and a heat flow probe designed to take the planet’s temperature.

Observations

  • Mars trembles more often than expected, but also more mildly. This emerged from readings of the ultra-sensitive seismometer, called the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS). The instrument enables scientists to hear multiple trembling events from hundreds to thousands of miles away.

  • Mars doesn’t have tectonic plates like Earth, but it does have volcanically active regions that can cause rumbles. SEIS has found more than 450 seismic signals to date, the majority of which are believed to be quakes (as opposed to data noise created by environmental factors, like wind).

  • Billions of years ago, Mars had a magnetic field. Although it is no longer present, it left behind magnetised rocks that are now between 61 m to several km below ground. InSight is equipped with a magnetometer, which has detected magnetic signals.

  • InSight measures wind speed, direction and air pressure nearly continuously. Weather sensors have detected thousands of passing whirlwinds, which are called dust devils when they pick up grit and become visible.

  • InSight has two radios. One is for regularly sending and receiving data. The other radio is designed to measure the “wobble” of Mars as it spins. This X-band radio, also known as the Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment (RISE), can eventually reveal whether the planet’s core is solid or liquid. A solid core would cause Mars to wobble less than a liquid one would.

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