By Sarah Readdean
NASA has made major moves to Mars and may have some new new knowledge on this potentially habitable planet, thanks to InSight.
The Mars lander arrived to the Martian surface last Monday, close to seven months after its launch this past May. InSight’s landing site was in an area called the Elysium Planitia, just north of the equator. According to NASA, the mission will last roughly two years.
The major question scientists are asking and seeking to understand is: what can we learn about the formation and evolution of our solar system from the planet Mars? There is so much we don’t know about our past, the 4.5 billion years before humans ever existed. And Mars is the place to start searching for clues.
Short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, InSight is designed to do just that: study the interior of the rocky planet. The two science objectives that NASA outlines are: to understand how a rocky planet forms by studying the interior structure and composition of Mars, and to measure the current level of tectonic or seismic activity (marsquakes) and the rate of meteorite impacts.
To achieve the latter, InSight will use a seismometer to track the waves that travel deep beneath the surface. When InSight manually inserts the seismometer into Mars, this will be a monumental event — the first ever robotic arm to independently place an object on another planet.
Mars, along with Mercury, Venus and Earth, make up the four rocky, or terrestrial planets, in our eight-planet solar system. In our solar system, the rocky planets are closer to the sun than the gas giants. But in other star systems we have discovered, the opposite is true. Gas planets that orbit some other stars are positioned significantly closer to their star than we are to our sun.
Why, then, are our gas giants so far away from the sun, while in other systems, they are closer than rocky planets? Why are we different than the other worlds that have been discovered?
Scientists want to understand the creation and evolution of our solar system. Understanding what sets our solar system apart from others can help us understand the origin of life. With a better understanding of the universe’s history, maybe we can find life somewhere else — or inhabit other planets ourselves.
InSight is the next step in leading us toward doing so.