NASA's new InSight mission set to dig deep into Mars mysteries

Mars InSight is scheduled to launch from California on Saturday, equipped with everything needed to do a complete internal exam of our neighbor the Red Planet.

Eric Mack Contributing Editor
Eric Mack has been a CNET contributor since 2011. Eric and his family live 100% energy and water independent on his off-grid compound in the New Mexico desert. Eric uses his passion for writing about energy, renewables, science and climate to bring educational content to life on topics around the solar panel and deregulated energy industries. Eric helps consumers by demystifying solar, battery, renewable energy, energy choice concepts, and also reviews solar installers. Previously, Eric covered space, science, climate change and all things futuristic. His encrypted email for tips is ericcmack@protonmail.com.
Expertise Solar, solar storage, space, science, climate change, deregulated energy, DIY solar panels, DIY off-grid life projects. CNET's "Living off the Grid" series. https://www.cnet.com/feature/home/energy-and-utilities/living-off-the-grid/ Credentials
  • Finalist for the Nesta Tipping Point prize and a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Eric Mack
5 min read

NASA is going back to Mars this weekend, but unlike the famed Mars rovers, Mars InSight won't be rolling around the Red Planet. 

Instead, after it lands, it will set up shop in one spot to look, listen and drill deep into the hidden history of the planet next door by detecting "Marsquakes," mapping Mars' interior and more.

Mars InSight, which stands for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, will also be NASA's first interplanetary mission to leave from the west coast of the US. 

The space agency is set to launch the craft early this Saturday from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Southern California and it's possible to see the rocket in flight in person or from anywhere online.

Most of the lander's time will be spent just sitting and "listening" to the interior of Mars as it measures the planet's subsurface heat and detects earthquakes (well, that'd be Marsquakes). The goal is to develop a map of sorts of the planet's "guts" and hopefully gain insights into the formation of other rocky planets, including our own.

"In some ways, InSight is like a scientific time machine that will bring back information about the earliest stages of Mars' formation 4.5 billion years ago," Bruce Banerdt, principal InSight investigator, said in a statement from NASA. "It will help us learn how rocky bodies form, including Earth, its moon, and even planets in other solar systems."

If all goes as planned, InSight will land on a broad Martian plain called Elysium Planitia, which is not far from where Curiosity is currently exploring Gale Crater.  

Mars InSight was built by Lockheed Martin and includes a number of instruments developed by NASA and other science institutions around the world. 

The craft's advanced seismometer instrument, for example, is largely a European collaboration, and the experiment will be led by Philippe Lognonne from the Institute of Earth Physics of Paris. Dubbed the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS), the instrument is so sensitive it can measure shifts in the ground smaller than a hydrogen atom.


If all goes as planned, InSight will land on a broad Martian plain called Elysium Planitia, which is not far from where Curiosity is currently exploring Gale Crater.


"We've been waiting for this moment for a long time," Lognonne says on the project website. "It's been 130 years since the first seismic record on Earth and almost 50 years since a seismometer was placed on the moon during the Apollo program. What we learn from SEIS will shed light on how Mars formed and evolved."  

The German Aerospace Center (DLR) developed another primary Mars InSight instrument, the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Probe (HP3), which will drill up to 16 feet (5 meters) below the surface to measure how temperature changes the deeper it goes. This will allow scientists to check out which radioactive elements have existed on Mars both today and in the past. 

Subsurface temperature data could also be interesting for other reasons, since some life forms here are thought to be able to survive in martian soil.  

Mapping out Mars' internal heat could transport us back to Earth's early days, Troy Hudson from the HP3 science team explained in a lecture at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory

"Whatever dynamo (Mars) had to create a magnetic field early in its life is now gone. It's stopped," he said. "Mars has frozen into an early state. Possibly a state like Earth when it was young before Earth erased that evidence with tectonics and convection. So by studying Mars, we get a glimpse into what Earth may have once been like."  

The final piece in InSight's trio of major instruments is the Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment (RISE), which uses radio antennas to precisely track the wobble of Mars' north pole, allowing scientists to determine the size and composition of the planet's core.

Hudson says Mars InSight will explore not by roving around, but by watching and listening:

"We listen to Mars for its quakes, we listen to its temperature, we observe its wobble."  

In addition to its main science instruments, InSight carries a robotic arm, two cameras and environmental sensors.

InSight is set to launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket that will also carry two mini-spacecraft, or "cubesats," making up the Mars Cube One experiment (MarCO). The tiny ships, adorably nicknamed "Wall-E" and "Eva," will be the first cubesats sent to deep space and will test new communications and navigation capabilities while also perhaps helping communicate with InSight on the surface. 

The launch window opens May 5 at 4:05 a.m. PT and lasts for two hours. If there are delays, the launch window opens a few minutes earlier each morning up until June 8.

It should be possible to see the rocket on its way out of the atmosphere from parts of central and southern California as well some locations on Mexico's Pacific coast, no telescope needed. Appropriately, Mars will also be visible in the night sky at the same time.

InSight is scheduled to reach Mars on Nov. 26, no matter when the launch actually takes place. There will be the same "seven minutes of terror" that mission control experienced with the landing of the Mars rover Curiosity. It takes that long to descend through the Martian atmosphere and represents perhaps the riskiest few minutes during which something could go wrong and endanger the entire $830 million mission. 

Although InSight's mission is planned to last just two Earth years, Martian craft have a track record of lasting long past their expiration dates. The Opportunity rover was designed to last 90 days on the Red Planet, but it just celebrated its 5,000th operational day on Mars in February. 

InSight is something like a doctor making an interplanetary house call to check up on Mars with a set of sensitive eyes and ears and an advanced stethoscope. If it works out, the doctor should be sending back a more complete physical history of the patient in the coming months. 

First published, May 2, 10:35 a.m. PT. 
Update, May 4, 11:20 a.m. PT: Adds information on how to watch the launch live.

Humans on Mars: An atlas of plans to land on the Red Planet

See all photos

Crowd Control: A crowdsourced science fiction novel written by CNET readers.

Solving for XX: The tech industry seeks to overcome outdated ideas about "women in tech."