NASA has launched a mission that will probe deep beneath the Martian surface to measure the seismology of Mars for the first time. The $800m Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission took off on Saturday 5 May at 04.05 local time from Vandenberg Air force Base in California aboard an Atlas V rocket. Once InSight reaches Mars on 26 November, the probe is expected to land in a flat region of the planet called Elysium Planitia. It will then take a couple of months to deploy the craft’s instruments before it begins transmitting data for at least two years.
InSight’s main aim is to study the planet’s interior by measuring its heat output and listening for seismic events on the planet. By studying the early geological evolution of Mars it is hoped the mission will shed light on the processes that shaped other rocky planets of the inner solar system, including Earth.
To do so the mission will carry two cameras as well as three other instruments, all of which will be deployed by the craft’s robotic arm. These include a geodetic instrument built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to determine the planet’s rotation axis as well as a device that can measure seismic waves travelling through the planet, made by a consortium led by France’s Paris-based National Centre for Space Studies. The third instrument, built by the German Aerospace Center in Cologne, will measure the flow of heat from the interior of the planet by burrowing a probe 5 m into the surface.
Launching alongside InSight is Mars Cube One. Built by JPL, this consists of two CubeSats – with dimensions of around 36 x 24 x 11 cm — that will test relaying communication signals from InSight to Earth. It is the first time that such small satellites have been sent to another planet.
The long road to Mars
InSight received the go-ahead in 2012 after beating off 27 other proposals, including a mission to Saturn’s moon Titan. The mission was initially set to launch in March 2016, but delayed for two years after a leak was discovered in a vacuum-sealed container that houses the seismometer in the device built by the French consortium.