NASA is about to go on a journey to study the center of Mars.
The space agency held a news conference today at its Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, detailing the next mission to the Red Planet.
InSight — short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport — is a stationary lander scheduled to launch as early as May 5. It will be the first mission ever dedicated to Mars’ deep interior, and the first NASA mission since the Apollo moon landings to place a seismometer on the soil of another planet.
For JPL’s Bruce Banerdt, it’s also a labor of love. Banerdt, InSight’s principal investigator, has worked for more than 25 years to make the mission a reality.
“In some ways InSight is like a scientific time machine that will bring back information about the earliest stages of Mars’ formation four-and-a-half billion years ago,” Banerdt said. “It will help us learn how rocky bodies form, including Earth, its moon and even planets in other solar systems.”
Scientists hope that by detecting marsquakes and other phenomena inside the planet, InSight can better understand how Mars formed. InSight carries a suite of sensitive instruments to gather these data; unlike a rover mission, they require a spacecraft that sits still and carefully places its instruments on the Martian surface.
NASA isn’t the only agency excited about the mission. Several European partners contributed instruments, or instrument components, for the InSight mission. For example, France’s Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES) led a multinational team that built an ultra-sensitive seismometer for detecting marsquakes. The German Aerospace Center (DLR) developed a thermal probe that can bury itself up to 16 feet (5 meters) underground and measure heat flowing from inside the planet.
“InSight is a truly international space mission,” said Project Manager Tom Hoffman of JPL. “Our partners have delivered incredibly capable instruments that will make it possible to gather unique science after we land.”
Looking deep into Mars will let scientists understand how different its crust, mantle and core are from their counterparts on Earth. In a sense, Mars is the exoplanet next door: a nearby example of how gas, dust and heat combine and arrange themselves into a planet.
InSight is currently at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California undergoing final preparation before launch. On Wednesday, it completed what’s known as a spin test: the entire spacecraft is rotated at high speeds to confirm its center of gravity.
That’s critical for its entry, descent and landing on Mars in November, Hoffman said. In the next month, the spacecraft will be mounted to its rocket, connections between them will be checked, and the launch team will go through a final training.
“This next month will be exciting,” Banerdt said. “We’ve got some final work to do, but we’re almost ready to go to Mars.”
JPL, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, California, manages the InSight Project for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Lockheed Martin Space, Denver, built and tested the spacecraft. InSight is part of NASA’s Discovery Program, which is managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.