NASA’s next Mars mission launches Saturday: Everything you need to know

On Saturday, NASA will launch its next mission to Mars. This time the lander, known as InSight, is focused squarely on learning more about the inner-workings of the red planet. 

The space agency’s InSight lander is expected to take about seven months between launch and — if all goes well — landing on the planet in November to gather all the data it can about the Martian geology around it and below it.

While the mission probably won’t directly help humans get to Mars in the coming decades, the science InSight is tasked with is still pretty amazing.

Unlike earlier missions that mostly dealt with Mars’ surface features, InSight will take a look beneath the red dirt of the world to learn more about how the planet itself formed.  

“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,” NASA’s Bruce Banerdt, InSight’s principal investigator, said in a statement

“It will help us learn how rocky bodies form, including Earth, its moon, and even planets in other solar systems.”

InSight will hunt for “marsquakes”

While this lander may not be as flashy as other missions NASA has sent to Mars — I’m looking at you, Curiosity — it will search for something other spacecraft haven’t been able to measure. 

The car-sized lander will be on the lookout for “marsquakes,” which are similar to earthquakes, except on Mars. That said, marsquakes aren’t caused by plate tectonics, like most earthquakes on our home planet. 

Instead, marsquakes likely occur infrequently due to the contraction of rock as it cools.

Whenever a marsquake hits, InSight will take a photo of the world’s interior, giving scientists back on Earth a view of Mars from the inside.

“It will be a fuzzy picture at first, but the more quakes we see, the sharper it will get,” Banerdt said in a statement.

“We have to get clever. We can measure how various waves from the same quake bounce off things and hit the station at different times.”

InSight will piece together Mars’ past and the history of the solar system

By learning more about marsquakes and the Martian geology underfoot, researchers should have a chance to figure out the history of how the planet and others like it form.

“The signatures of the planet’s formation can only be found by sensing and studying its vital signs far below the surface,” NASA said.

Scientists have wanted to mount a mission like InSight for decades. 

While we know the broad strokes of how rocky worlds formed — planets condensed out of a cloud of gas and dust around the sun after the dawn of the solar system more than 4 billion years ago — we still need to understand more about why Mars is the cold, dead world it is today.

One important reason scientists are hunting for information about how Mars formed, along with other planets, is because they’re hoping to understand more about how planets outside of our solar system formed.

Even though InSight is a mission to Mars, it could help us learn more about our own home, too. 

“Some of the ever-increasing number of exoplanets identified around stars other than our sun may be similarly rocky and layered, though Earthlike worlds are smaller than the giant exoplanets whose size makes them easiest to find,” NASA said in a press release

“A key challenge in planetary science half a century into the Space Age is to understand factors that affect how newly forming planets with the same starting materials evolve into worlds as diverse as the terrestrial planets. As a particularly interesting corollary: What does it take to make a planet as special as Earth?”

It launches from a place that’s never sent a mission to Mars

On Saturday at 7:05 a.m. ET, InSight will launch to Mars atop an Atlas V rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, a launch site that has never before sent a spacecraft to Mars.

Other missions to Mars have typically launched from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, where the rotation of the Earth to the east helps the missions along on their way to space. InSight’s planned launch from the West Coast indicates that NASA wants to take advantage of the Atlas V’s power. 

This particular rocket, built by United Launch Alliance, is powerful enough to fly south from Vandenberg, meaning that it can get to Mars relatively easily from the West Coast, NASA said.

Also, the launch site’s schedule was meant that its pads were more available for this mission.

“Besides, Vandenberg Air Force Base is more available at this time to accommodate InSight’s five-week launch window,” NASA said.

The mission is also carrying two small
“cubesats” to Mars

For the first time in history, NASA will send two tiny satellites — called cubesats — to a world other than our own. 

The twin satellites, called Mars Cube One (MarCO) spacecraft, are designed as technology demonstrations, but they could one day be used to relay flight data from future Mars landings back to Earth, NASA said in a statement. 

Historically, the U.S. is the only country to ever successfully land rovers or landers on Mars, so having more information about what goes wrong (or right) during a landing could make it much easier to figure out how to be successful next time. 

Plus, the two MarCO satellites have some pretty adorable names. 

While the official names for the spacecraft are MarCO-A and MarCO-B, the two cubesats were nicknamed Wall-E and Eva by the engineers that built them, according to NASA. 

“These are our scouts,” MarCO’s chief engineer Andy Klesh said in a statement

“Cubesats haven’t had to survive the intense radiation of a trip to deep space before, or use propulsion to point their way towards Mars. We hope to blaze that trail.”

from Mashable!