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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

Mars Once had Salt Lakes Similar to the Ones on Earth

Since then, its geological terrains have recorded the history of Mars, and studies have shown Gale Crater reveals signs that liquid water was present

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Mars, Salt, Lakes
Gale Crater was formed about 3.6 billion years ago when a meteor hit Mars. Pixabay

Mars once had salt lakes similar to the ones on Earth and has gone through wet and dry periods, according to a new study.

The researchers from Texas A&M University College in the US examined Mars’ geological terrains from Gale Crater, an immense 95-mile-wide rocky basin that is being explored by the NASA Curiosity rover since 2012 as part of the MSL (Mars Science Laboratory) mission, according to the study published in the journal Nature Geoscience.

The results show that the lake, which was present in Gale Crater over three billion years ago underwent a drying episode, potentially linked to the global drying of Mars.

Gale Crater was formed about 3.6 billion years ago when a meteor hit Mars.

Mars, Salt, Lakes

The researchers from Texas A&M University College in the US examined Mars’ geological terrains from Gale Crater, an immense 95-mile-wide rocky basin that is being explored by the NASA Curiosity rover since 2012. Pixabay

“Since then, its geological terrains have recorded the history of Mars, and studies have shown Gale Crater reveals signs that liquid water was present over its history, which is a key ingredient of microbial life as we know it,” said study co-author Marion Nachon from Texas A&M University.

“During these drying periods, salt ponds eventually formed. It is difficult to say exactly how large these ponds were, but the lake in Gale Crater was present for long periods of time – from at least hundreds of years to perhaps tens of thousands of years,” Nachon said.

According to the researchers, Mars probably became drier over time, and the planet lost its planetary magnetic field, which left the atmosphere exposed to be stripped by solar wind and radiation over millions of years.

“With the atmosphere becoming thinner, the pressure at the surface became lesser, and the conditions for liquid water to be stable at the surface were not fulfilled anymore, so liquid water became unsustainable and evaporated,” Nachon said.

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The salt ponds on Mars are believed to be similar to some found on Earth, especially those in a region called Altiplano, which is near the Bolivia-Peru border.

Nachon said that the Altiplano is an arid, high-altitude plateau where rivers and streams from mountain ranges “do not flow to the sea but lead to closed basins, similar to what used to happen at Gale Crater on Mars.

“This hydrology creates lakes with water levels heavily influenced by climate. During the arid periods Altiplano lakes become shallow due to evaporation, and some even dry up entirely,” she said.

Nachon added that the study shows that the ancient lake in Gale Crater underwent at least one episode of drying before “recovering.”

Mars, Salt, Lakes
The results show that the lake, which was present in Gale Crater over three billion years ago underwent a drying episode, potentially linked to the global drying of Mars. Pixabay

It’s also possible that the lake was segmented into separate ponds, where some of the ponds could have undergone more evaporation.

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These results indicate a past Mars climate that fluctuated between wetter and drier periods, the researchers said. (IANS)