Before NASA’s InSight lander gathers data on Martian surface vibrations, aka “marsquakes”, it needs to protect its seismographic instrument from the winds and temperature changes during its stay on the red planet. Since wild temperature swings on Mars can mean fluctuations of about 170 degrees Farenheit over the course of a Martian day (sol), contractions and expansions of the seismometer were a problem needing to be addressed. To do that, an instrument shield was designed which has now been deployed as a first line of defense: It’s a white dome with a chain mail and thermal blanket skirt on the bottom called the “Wind and Thermal Shield”. After a successful dome deployment on Saturday, another milestone for the craft has been reached, bringing InSight’s team one step closer to understanding the secrets of the planet’s early formative years by studying its core.
InSight (short for “Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport”) was launched aboard an Atlas rocket in California on May 5, 2018, arriving at its destination on November 26, 2018. After a perfect live-streamed Martian surface landing shortly thereafter, Earthlings were treated to a (slightly dusty) photo taken by one of InSight’s on-board cameras, providing visual confirmation of the arrival. In the following days and weeks, ‘selfies’ along with other goodies were sent, such as the sound of Martian wind, as the craft meticulously placed its seismometer on the ground and continued its preparation for its full science mission of studying the heart of Mars as well as its atmosphere and weather patterns.
In addition to a protective dome, InSight’s seismometer itself adjusts for the changing Martian surface. As some parts expand and contract, other parts do the reverse to balance out the effect. Inside the dome, the seismometer is also contained in a titanium, vacuum-sealed container, the combination of which helps insulate the instrument even further from environmental hazards. The high-carbon dioxide content of Mars’s atmosphere is slow to conduct heat under the planet’s low pressure environment, further protecting InSight’s mission from local damaging effects.
Two tiny history-making satellites, collectively named MarCo, joined InSight on its journey to Mars. These briefcase-sized CubeSats’ initial job of demonstrating their relay capabilities during the craft’s landing event successfully sent data back to scientists on Earth much quicker than they would have received without them (near real-time, actually). Due to transmission delays and the locations of other satellites already orbiting the planet, InSight’s short journey to the surface may have taken hours for scientists on Earth to confirm otherwise. One of the MarCo satellites even sent back a photo of Mars as it flew by the planet, the low-cost mission itself representing a hopeful outlook on the future of deep space exploration. NASA has not made contact with the two tiny travellers since January 4, 2019, however, and both craft are now located over a million miles past Mars in Sun-centric orbits.
Now that InSight’s seismometer is on the surface and protected, it will proceed to deploy its heat flow probe next week. Essentially, this means the craft will drill almost 16 feet into the Martian surface and measure the heat of the planet’s interior. The goal of this research is to determine whether Mars is made of the same stuff as the Earth and the Moon, potentially answering questions about all of the planetary bodies’ evolution. Stay tuned!