What Lies Beneath the Surface of Mars

Early Saturday morning, NASA launched a rocket toward our nearest planetary sibling Mars. The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket took off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Southern California at 4:05am, carrying NASA’s InSight Mars lander and two cubesats. Its mission? To explore the unseen interior beneath Mars, and amongst other experiments listening for evidence of ‘Marsquakes’.

The InSight Mars lander’s journey will take a total of 205 days, and travel a distance of 301 million miles, momentously, this was the first time a shuttle launch had taken place on the west coast of the USA.

Aiming to better understand how rocky planets are formed the InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations) Mars Lander will parachute into the lava plains of Elysium Planitia. However before it reaches the ominous sounding surface the lander must first clean itself of all earthly biologicals, failure to do this can result in any scientific findings discovered on the surface being compromised.

Elysium Planitia has been chosen as the perfect landing site for the Mars Lander because of the strong possibility of there being a huge expanse of ash covered water ice 500 miles wide, and 45 miles deep. The result of water floods 2 to 10 million years ago. Perfect for investigating below the surface.

The ash ice has fractured into smaller plates similar to fractured glacier ice, providing scientists with the opportunity to carry out experiments below the Martian surface. Using impact craters nearby as evidence, scientists have theorised that the floating plates are nearly 1 million years older than the material they sit upon. The 1 million years time difference is crucial because it tells scientists that the material between the plates can’t be lava.

Taking seven months of interplanetary travel, InSight during its journey will have to undertake several trials and tests to ensure it’s capable of landing on the Martian surface, the tests will determine whether the scientific instruments and subsystems on board are in full working order.

If even a single instrument on board is faulty the lander could become a complete financial and scientific failure for NASA. Six necessary trajectory maneuvers are planned during the seven month journey, with two backup plans to rely upon if the lander does incur any unseen issues. The first of the trajectory movements is planned for May 15th only ten days after the launch. The trajectory intervention is essential to the mission, without it, InSight would overshoot Mars by hundreds of thousands of miles.
Speaking to Space.com, Tim Hoffman InSight Project Manager said of the planned maneuvers; “Some of them we may skip if our injection is really good, others we’ll do. Some will be done just before entry, descent and landing, just to make sure we are hitting the exact corridor for that successful landing.”

Hitchhiking behind the Mars bound rocket are two CubeSats, affectionately nicknamed Wall-E and Eve by NASA staff. This will be the first time that cubesats have travelled so far across our solar system, having only previously been used within Earth’s orbit. If the CubeSats successfully survive the arduous journey, it could lead to them being used to magnify communication between Earth and spacecraft travelling to the far reaches of our solar system.

The CubeSat pair officially known as MarCO-A and MarCO-B, both similar in size to a briefcase, sent their first radio signals back to Earth on Saturday morning.

Mission chief engineer Andy Klesh of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California said to NASA.gov; “Both MarCO – A and MarCO – B say ‘Polo’, It’s a sign that the little sats are alive and well”.

If the two mini satellites survive the bleak conditions of space and continue to function, they’ll fly over the Red Planet while InSight parachutes onto the surface. Using special antennae, Wall-E and Eve will transmit InSight’s health back to Earth during the descent, commonly termed at NASA as the ‘Seven Minutes of Terror’.

Named by NASA, the ‘Seven Minutes of Terror’ is the amount of time it takes spacecraft to travel from the peak of Mars’ atmosphere to the surface of the planet, It will take 14 minutes to transmit the signal back to Earth. Meaning that for 7 minutes after the InSight lands on Mars, NASA has no idea whether their multi-billion dollar experiment is functioning.

NASA’s 7 Minutes of Terror

NASA won’t yet rely on CubeSats for transmitting signals back to Earth but if the two mini satellites survive and are in working order, it could lead to them being used on future missions as a sort of spacecraft ‘black box’.

Joel Krajewski MarCO project manager said in a statement released to NASA.gov;“We’re nervous but excited, a lot of work went into designing and testing components so that they could survive the trip to Mars.

Concluding his statement he said; “Our broader goal is to learn more about how to adapt CubeSat technologies for future deep space missions.”

Due to touch down in November, it is hoped that InSight will drill nearly 16 feet underground, and spend the following two years taking thermal readings as well as ‘listening’ beneath the surface of Mars.

If successful NASA, corroborating space agencies and science divisions from around the globe will have a greater understanding of how rocky planets such as Mars and others in our solar system were created following the Big Bang.