Astronomers have pondered over why Earth and Mars are so different, from an evolutionary perspective, for quite some time. However, NASA have designs to fill in these gaps in our planetary knowledge by launching a cost-effective mission to Mars, by 2016, to investigate the planet’s core.
Mars vs. Earth
The new mission is called InSight (Interior exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport), and will attempt to identify the nature of the Red Planet’s core. Specifically, is the core in liquid form or is it solid? Furthermore, the research efforts will attempt to establish why there is such a huge difference between the crust of Earth and Mars. Our planet is home to a series of tectonic plates, whilst Mars is an endless, barren wasteland of deserts, valleys and polar ice caps, interspersed with impact craters.
Researchers believe that the key to understanding these mysteries might lie at the heart of the Red Planet, and could eventually lead scientists to pinpoint the means by which other rocky planets come to fruition.
The mission’s budget is planned to be a little over $400 million, with Bruce Banerdt taking the helm, who works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), in California.
Launching in March 2016, and with a lander arriving on the planet half a year later, the Mars mission is due to last two years. The lander will consist of a number of instruments to measure seismic activity and heat fluctuations within the planet’s interior, whilst taking measurements of the rotation of the Red Planet upon its axis. The robotic lander will also feature a set of cameras and a pair of arms to aid its research.
The Financial Factor
The InSight Mars mission was given the go ahead after competing against two other proposed missions, TiME and Comet Hopper, as it was an evolution of a previous NASA project (the Phoenix Mars Mission) and provided a highly cost-effective prospect. The Phoenix lander was a highly successful mission, which was utilized to explore ground ice around the Martian north pole; it’s thought that exploiting the same technology for the new InSight mission could help to cut costs.
This was confirmed by John Grunsfeld, the associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate who suggested that TiME’s proposed mission to Titan (Saturn’s enormous moon), represented a financial gamble, citing scheduling problems as another adverse factor.
Landing Site Selection
According to NBC News, NASA is currently investigating plausible landing sites for InSight’s 2016 Mars Mission. Thus far, four suitable sites have been selected, where investigation of the planet’s core may commence. Matt Golombek, also working from NASA’s JPL, highlights that landing suitability is principally based around the area that is deemed safest:
“They have mostly smooth terrain, few rocks and very little slope.”
These landing sites have all been selected within the Elysium Planitia zone of Mars. This region is thought to provide sufficient solar power, all year round, as well as a descent atmosphere (due to low elevations), with which the spacecraft can make its landing.
NASA had also previously considered other landing zones as viable targets, including areas of the Valles Marineris, the Isidis Planitia and the famous “Grand Canyons” of Mars. However, these regions had a number of issues preventing the go-ahead, including uneven terrain and high wind velocities.
Studying Mars as a Living Entity
NASA describe this new space adventure as a search for “fingerprints,” of the mechanisms by which terrestrial planets develop, and almost seems to compare Mars to that of a human being. The seismological activity represents the planet’s “pulse”, whereas its heat flow and tracking represent “temperature” and “reflexes.”
As there is no tectonic activity, and the planet is less geologically dynamic than Earth, Mars is thought to retain most of its history within its crust, mantle and core. Consequently, the team consider that thorough investigation of the size, density and overall thickness of the various layers of the planet could provide a more concrete understanding of how Mars has changed with time.
The birth of a planet begins when a rocky body evolves. Evolution follows the formation of the rocky body by a process called accretion. The body increases in size, its inner material heats up and melts, and it then recrystallizes during a period of cooling. The end result is a terrestrial planet, encompassing the crust, mantle and core.
It’s the subsequent steps that scientists are confused by, however. A planet’s evolution is based upon differentiation, which astronomers know little about. This is, hopefully, where InSight is likely to plug in the gaps in our knowledge.
To round off the mission, NASA plans to conduct an investigation into the impact of meteorites on the Red Planet’s surface. NASA’s 2016 Mars mission, and their plans to study the planet’s core features, represents an exciting new step for the space agency, who have been under much criticism for not pursuing further endeavors on the Red Planet. Hopefully, this will help silence some of their critics.
By James Fenner