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New NASA Mission to Take First Look Deep Inside Mars

NASA Mission to Peer Into Mars’ Past

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NASA, Microsoft
After lettuce, astronauts could grow beans in space in 2021. Pixabay

A powerful Atlas 5 rocket was poised for liftoff early Saturday from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, carrying to Mars the first robotic NASA lander designed entirely for exploring the deep interior of the red planet.

The Mars InSight probe was scheduled to blast off from the central California coast at 4:05 a.m. PDT (1105 GMT), creating a luminous predawn spectacle of the first U.S. interplanetary spacecraft to be launched over the Pacific.

The lander will be carried aloft for NASA and its Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) atop a two-stage, 19-story Atlas 5 rocket from the fleet of United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing Co.

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The payload will be released about 90 minutes after launch on a 301-million-mile (484 million km) flight to Mars. It is scheduled to reach its destination in six months, landing on a broad, smooth plain close to the planet’s equator called the Elysium Planitia.

InSight’s mission

That will put InSight roughly 373 miles (600 km) from the 2012 landing site of the car-sized Mars rover Curiosity. The new 800-pound (360-kg) spacecraft marks the 21st U.S.-launched Martian exploration, dating to the Mariner fly-by missions of the 1960s. Nearly two dozen other Mars missions have been launched by other nations.

An image of Mars.
Mars. Pixabay

Once settled, the solar-powered InSight will spend two years, about one Martian year, plumbing the depths of the planet’s interior for clues to how Mars took form and, by extension, the origins of the Earth and other rocky planets.

Measuring marsquakes

InSight’s primary instrument is a French-built seismometer, designed to detect the slightest vibrations from “marsquakes” around the planet. The device, to be placed on the surface by the lander’s robot arm, is so sensitive it can measure a seismic wave just one-half the radius of a hydrogen atom.

Scientists expect to see a dozen to 100 marsquakes over the course of the mission, producing data to help them deduce the depth, density and composition of the planet’s core, the rocky mantle surrounding it and the outermost layer, the crust.

The Viking probes of the mid-1970s were equipped with seismometers, too, but they were bolted to the top of the landers, a design that proved largely ineffective.

Representational image.
Representational image. Pixabay

Apollo missions to the moon brought seismometers to the lunar surface as well, detecting thousands of moonquakes and meteorite impacts. But InSight is expected to yield the first meaningful data on planetary seismic tremors beyond Earth.

Insight also will be fitted with a German-made drill to burrow as much as 16 feet (5 meters) underground, pulling behind it a rope-like thermal probe to measure heat flowing from inside the planet.

Meanwhile, a special transmitter on the lander will send radio signals back to Earth, tracking Mars’ subtle rotational wobble to reveal the size of the planet’s core and possibly whether it remains molten.

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Hitching a ride aboard the same rocket that launches InSight will be a pair of miniature satellites called CubeSats, which will fly to Mars on their own paths behind the lander in a first deep-space test of that technology. (VOA)

Next Story

NASA Probe Makes New Discoveries on Asteroid Bennu

As a result, Bennu's rotation period is decreasing by about a second every 100 years, the scientists explained

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Asteroid
This Nov. 16, 2018, image provide by NASA shows the asteroid Bennu. NASA

NASA’s first asteroid-sampling mission OSIRIS-REx has observed particle plumes erupting from the surface of Bennu, an asteroid the size of the pyramid at Giza.

The Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft, which began orbiting Bennu on December 31, first discovered the particle plumes on January 6, followed by additional particle plumes over the last two months.

While some of the particles were slow-moving, the others were found orbiting Bennu, like small satellites.

Bennu’s entire surface was also found to be rough and dense with boulders, contrary to the Earth-based observations, which showed a smooth surface with a few large boulders.

This means that the sample collection part of the mission will have to be adjusted to make sure that OSIRIS-REx can touch down and collect a sample, said NASA while presenting the discoveries at the 50th Lunar and Planetary Conference in Houston.

“The discovery of plumes is one of the biggest surprises of my scientific career,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson.

NASA
This artist’s rendering made available by NASA in July 2016 shows the mapping of the near-Earth asteroid Bennu by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. VOA

“And the rugged terrain went against all of our predictions. Bennu is already surprising us, and our exciting journey there is just getting started,” Lauretta added.

Further, the team observed a change in the spin rate of Bennu as a result of what is known as the Yarkovsky-O’Keefe-Radzievskii-Paddack (YORP) effect.

The uneven heating and cooling of Bennu as it rotates in sunlight is causing the asteroid to increase its rotation speed.

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As a result, Bennu’s rotation period is decreasing by about a second every 100 years, the scientists explained.

OSIRIS-REx launched in 2016 to explore Bennu, the smallest body ever orbited by spacecraft, is expected to return a sample of the asteroid to Earth in 2023.

The findings will allow researchers to learn more about the origins of our solar system, the sources of water and organic molecules on Earth, the resources in near-Earth space, as well as improve our understanding of asteroids that could impact Earth. (IANS)