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Published: Sat, May 05, 2018
Research | By Jennifer Evans

NASA's Mars Insight Lander Is All Ready for Get, Set and Go!

NASA's Mars Insight Lander Is All Ready for Get, Set and Go!

Nasa's latest mission to another planet is set to blast off on Saturday on a seven month voyage across the frigid depths of space to Mars, with the aim of mapping the planet's interior for the first time.

First, about the launch. Those CubeSats will make the somewhat shorter journey to lunar orbit, but they'll be doing real scientific observing when they get there.

A problem with a seismic instrument, built by France's Centre National d'Études Spatiales (CNES), prompted NASA to postpone launching InSight until the next time Mars's orbit aligned with earth's for an optimal flight.

Artist's Concept of InSight Lander on Mars. It's a lander - the first NASA mission to Mars since MAVEN, and the first planned to touch down since Curiosity - and will be looking into marquakes.

Still, with a price tag of only $18.5 million, MarCO could prove its worth as a cheap bit of added functionality for missions like InSight, which cost NASA and its European partners a billion dollars. In particular, CNES provided the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) instrument, with significant contributions from the Max Planck Institute for Solar Systems Research (MPS). In fact, it's how we've learned so much about our own planet's innards!

Unlike Mars, Earth has active tectonic plates and convection that carries heat from the core outward, moving around the mantle layer.

Up until now, previous missions to the Red Planet have concentrated on its exterior by studying martian volcanoes, canyons, rocks and soil. Go check it out.

To measure the seismic activity on the red planet, InSight uses a seismometer developed by the French space agency Cnes. This is an ambitious experiment; the probe is supposed to hammer itself an incredible 5 meters down into the Martian surface, far more than has even been attempted or achieved before. As heat radiates away from the surface, the crust contracts and buckles.

How a spinning object precesses and nutates depends on the forces acting on it, and the structure of the object. As Mars wobbles, the rotation rate is affected very, very slightly.

During a pre-launch briefing, First Lieutenant Kristina Williams of the 30th Space Wing, the Weather Officer for the launch, reckoned that there was an 80 per cent chance that the launch would be shrouded in fog, which would be disappointing for viewers but not a constraint for getting the rocket off the ground.

"These really extreme volume constraints have forced us to really rethink and recreate everything", says John Baker, who manages the small satellite programs at JPL. Hopefully, in just a year or so, we'll find out.

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