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4 Tips to Understand the Importance of NASA's InSight Landing

When the successful landing of NASA's InSight lander was confirmed, the control room erupted in applause and cheering. What makes the spacecraft's arrival at Mars so special and what will we learn from the mission?

By
Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD,
Episode #310

3. NASA scientists use augmented reality to help them see Mars as InSight does.

To help them prepare for InSight’s mission, scientists at NASA have a lab space where they have recreated the Martian terrain as they expect it to look at the landing site, including a replica of the InSight lander. After landing, they will adapt that terrain to match the images InSight takes of its surroundings. First, they will feed those images to 3-dimensional augmented reality headsets that superimpose the photos on the lab surroundings to recreate the Martian landscape in 3D. Then they can alter the real-life dust and dirt to match using more old fashioned tools, like shovels.

For your own taste of Mars-related augmented reality, check out the Spacecraft AR app developed by visualization experts at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The smartphone app puts NASA spacecraft right in front of you for an upclose look.

4. InSight will be the first mission to study the interior of Mars.

The InSight mission has three main goals that have been described as analogous to taking the Mars’s vital signs, namely the planet’s pulse, reflexes, and temperature.

InSight will also use a seismometer to measure the strengths and frequencies of waves traveling through the interior of the planet. These measurements reveal what is creating the waves as well as the properties of the material the waves are moving through. Scientists suspect this so-called seismic activity is caused by marsquakes and meteorite impacts. Measuring these waves can tell us the size of Mars’s core, and the depth and composition of its different layers, namely the crust, the mantle, and the core.

InSight will also look for changes in radio signals coming from Earth as a way of testing how much Mars wobbles in its orbit around the Sun. The amount of wobble reveals the composition of the planet’s core: you get more wobble with a liquid core and less wobble with a solid one.

Finally, InSight will deliver a device called a mole which will dig as far as 16 feet below the surface to take the planet’s temperature. The very high tech thermometer will tell us how much heat escapes the interior of the red planet and how much temperatures fluctuate throughout the year. We will get an answer to the very intriguing question of whether or not Mars is still warm enough for liquid water to exist below the surface.

All of these measurements, or vital signs, ultimately tell us about the composition of the interior of Mars. Once we know what Mars is made of, we can assess how Mars must have formed 4.5 billion years ago and, as a bonus, get a better understanding of the formation of other rocky planets like our Earth.

As an astrophysicist, I am incredibly excited about not only the science we have to learn from the InSight lander but also the dedication and team work that was required to get the lander to Mars successfully. We are all Earthlings huddled together in the vastness of space trying to learn more about how we got here. But as the goals of the InSight mission reveal, we are still seeking answers to even the most fundamental questions about Mars and are far from being able to reliably visit our planetary neighbor. So let’s remember to prioritize taking care of the planet we are on. We, and the Earth, are in this together.

Until next time, this is Sabrina Stierwalt with Everyday Einstein’s Quick and Dirty Tips for helping you make sense of science. You can become a fan of Everyday Einstein on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, where I’m @QDTeinstein. If you have a question that you’d like to see on a future episode, send me an email at everydayeinstein@quickanddirtytips.com.

Image courtesy of nasa.gov

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About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr. Sabrina Stierwalt is an extragalactic astrophysicist at the California Institute of Technology and Adjunct Faculty at the University of Virginia.

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