InSight on Mars: all set to go digging

American space agency Nasa’s latest Mars lander InSight is on a roll: scouting the Martian lands, sending pictures back to earth, taking selfies, and tweeting every moment of its time there!

The lure of the Red Planet is a long-standing one and InSight’s enthusiasm is infectious. Nasa sent its first lander on Mars in the 1970s and has since sent several more to investigate the planet’s surface. Some have made Mars a permanent home. InSight is the eighth lander to succeed.

It is not without reason that Mars has so many visitors, albeit mechanical ones, from earth as till date, the journey to Mars has yielded encouraging results. Rovers Pathfinder, Opportunity, Phoenix and our orbiter Mangalyaan have conducted extensive studies of the topography and mineralogy of Mars, detecting chemical signatures of the existence of water and traces of the substance ‘perchlorate’ (useful in producing oxygen and rocket fuel). These possibilities have only intensified our temptation to colonise it in the future.

With an intent to send humans to our planetary neighbour in the coming decades, Nasa is fervently gathering all necessary data about Mars. It is as a part of this effort that the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport — or InSight — is now on the agenda of digging deep into the arid sands of Mars and unravelling its secrets.

Tagging along with the lander for seven months and 500 million kilometres were two briefcase-sized CubeSats MarCO A and B, which opened new vistas to space missions. Thanks to their transmission, the EDL (Entry, Descent and Landing) sequence of InSight was available to us within minutes. Their success reflected the capability of tiny machines to travel to deep space providing an economical “bring your own transmission kit” option for future missions.

The landing of InSight was by itself a nail-biting event when it had to decelerate from 19,800 kmph down to 20 kmph in a matter of six and a half minutes. The probe did so with aplomb, exhibiting endurance and durability, and perched itself on Martian soil on November 26.

Soon after landing, InSight unfolded its web-like solar panels which will power its instruments. Insight is expected to survey the land for one Martian year plus 40 Martian days or the equivalent of two earth years. During this period, it has a calendar full of activities and will soon deploy its instruments.

The HP3

The Heat Flow and Physical Properties Probe will self-dig and place a probe 16 feet below the surface to take temperature measurements of the planet. The device will check the amount of heat coming out of the planet’s interior and the radiation source. This will give us a peek into the origins of Mars, and perhaps our own as well. With many similarities, who knows, Mars may turn out to be earth’s sibling, after all, formed from the same cosmic source.

The SEIS

The Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure is a seismometer that will capture the faintest of Marsquakes. Tremors can be generated not just by the planet’s interior activities but also by meteorite impacts, dust storms (called dust devils) and disturbances in its atmosphere. The SEIS data will give us an insight into what went into the formation of the rocky planet, and if liquid water and volcanoes exist below its surface, and the present tectonic activity.

The RISE

The Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment is a 7.5 kilo equipment with two horn antennae which keep track of the lander’s position on Mars and will also tell us the exact location of the planet in space. As the sun pushes and pulls Mars while in orbit, the planet experiences a wobble around its pole due to the gravitational forces. RISE is designed to measure this bulge, and the data will help us to determine the composition of the planet’s core. This data will help find the materials — besides iron — that make up Mars’ centre, and their state — liquid or solid.

Playing an indispensable role in picking up, placing the instruments, and coordinating all these events is the robotic arm of the lander with a SuperCam placed on its elbow.

Busy by the minute, Insight is in constant communication with its international team of makers. Two of the instruments have already picked up vibrations of the howling Martian winds; “In the coming weeks, the ground engineers will be selecting the ideal spot to place the instruments and fine-tune them for the measurements,” briefed Elizabeth Barret, Insight Science Instruments Ops Coordinator, JPL.

Meanwhile, InSight is busy checking out its workspace — the sandy lava plane called Elysium Planitia. “Insight isn’t camera shy,” says Nasa, releasing the first selfie Insight took in its new home: a mosaic of 11 photographs displaying the solar panels and the scientific instruments sitting pretty on its deck. The social media-savvy shutterbug posted: “First #selfie! I’m feeling healthy, energised and whole. This is me on #Mars.” The stunning picture could easily give any celebrity a run for their money.

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InSight on Mars: all set to go digging

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