NASA Is About To Launch Its First Mission To Mars In 5 Years

InSight will try to work out what's going on inside Mars. NASA/JPL-Caltech

This Saturday, NASA plans to launch its first mission to Mars in about five years. And it’s going to be pretty awesome.

The mission is called InSight, which stands for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport. It’s a stationary lander, which means it will remain in one place on Mars, unlike rovers that NASA has sent there in the past.

Why? Well, it’s not going to be looking for signs of life or water like other missions. Instead, it’s going to try to work out what’s going on inside the Red Planet.

“InSight is like a scientific time machine that will bring back information about the earliest stages of Mars' formation 4.5 billion years ago," Bruce Banerdt from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the lead on the mission, said in a statement.

The mission is scheduled to launch in the early hours of May 5 from California, about 4.05am local time there (you can watch it live on NASA TV). If the launch doesn’t happen on that day, it has a three-week window to get going, when our two planets are aligned. Regardless of the launch date, it will arrive on November 26 this year.

Scientists want to know how thick the crust of Mars is. NASA/JPL-Caltech

When it gets to Mars, it will touch down in “one of the most boring places on the Red Planet,” noted the New York Times. This is Elysium Planitia, a large flat expanse devoid of any mountains, rocks, or craters that we’d usually be interested in studying.

InSight isn’t designed to really look at the surface. It’s packed with a seismometer – the first to another world since the Apollo missions – and other instruments that will enable it to look inside Mars. It will have a few cameras to image the surface too, though.

In particular, InSight is going to be looking for marsquakes. Unlike Earth, Mars doesn’t have shifting tectonic plates, but it’s thought it could have quakes up to magnitude 7.0 caused by the planet cooling, volcanism, and other tectonic activity.

It will take about six months for InSight to get to Mars. NASA/JPL-Caltech

The seismometer is a dome-shaped instrument that will sit on the Martian surface and study the vibrations of the planet. It’s so sensitive that it can detect surface movements that are smaller than a hydrogen atom.

InSight will also have a heat sensor that will be hammered 5 meters (16 feet) into the surface of Mars. This will try to measure the heat from the planet’s core for the first time and, together with the lander’s other instruments, could tell us what Mars looks like inside.

Unlike most other Mars missions, InSight will not be looking for water or signs Mars was habitable. But it will reveal some pretty interesting secrets about the Red Planet.

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