Space Probe Digs Deep into Mars’ Surface, Uncovering the Planet’s Secrets

December 06, 2018 by Gary Elinoff

As much an engineering feat as a scientific endeavor, NASA is test-driving multiple exciting new innovations for the first time.

As much an engineering feat as a scientific endeavor, NASA is test-driving multiple exciting new innovations for the first time.

NASA’s InSight lander launched on May 5th this year from Vandenburg Air Force Base and completed its 300-million mile journey to Mars on November 26th. InSight, which is an acronym for “Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy, and Heat Transport,” touched ground on the Elysium Planitia, which is a smooth, flat sweep of lava on the surface of Mars.

InSight’s task is scheduled to last for two years and, according to NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, "InSight will study the interior of Mars and will teach us valuable science as we prepare to send astronauts to the Moon and later to Mars.”


InSight’s Solar Arrays Deploying. Image source (from a video): NASA

On the Martian Surface

Once the lander's solar arrays are deployed and the health of the mission’s physical components are verified, RISE, the Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment, will start measuring the Martian weather and begin reconnoitering the landing area. It will also study variation in Mars’s orbit, known as wobble.

InSight’s robotic arm is another of this mission’s innovations, this being the first time such a device has been used to place an instrument package on the surface of an extraterrestrial body.


InSight’s Roboic Arm deploys an instrument package. Image source (from Video): NASA

In the picture above, we see the robotic arm deploying the seismometer, formally designated as the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS). It will detect seismic perturbations caused by events such as meteor strikes and the Martian equivalent of earthquakes.

Burrowing into the Martian Surface

After the seismometer is operational, the robotic arm goes back to work again, this time deploying InSight's Heat flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3). This fantastic device is tipped by a “mole” that digs into the Martian surface. Every 19.5 inches, it generates a heat pulse, and measures the thermal conductivity of the soil. Ultimately, HP3 will fight its way down to 15 feet below the surface.

The perturbations caused by HP3 will be measured by SEIS, garnering invaluable information about what’s going on underneath Mars’s surface.

Communications between InSight and Earth will be largely handled by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) AKA the Mars Odyssey. But, MRO will have two tiny helpmates, the CubeSats.

InSight’s Tiny Fellow Travelers

CubeSats are miniature satellites whose diminutive size allows them to “hitch rides” along with much larger space vehicles. They are most often used in near-Earth operations, and one of their hallmarks is that they are often built of standard, off-the-shelf components, so they are dirt-cheap. These devices are built of one or more units of four square inch modules.

Two CubeSats, MarCo-A and MarCo-B, were launched along with InSight, marking the first time such vehicles have been employed in a deep-space mission. Dubbed Mars Cube One (MarCO), these space vehicles were built of six of the basic four-inch modules. They will not stay attached to InSight for the long trip to Mars, but will navigate independently from Earth to Mars.

Tiny CubeSats on their Mars Adventure. Image source (from a video). NASA

The essential communications between InSight and Earth will be handled by the MRO, with the CubeSats piggybacking, so this is actually a “training mission” for the CubeSats. Incredibly, these vehicles actually use what amounts to the same chemical mechanism employed in common fire extinguishers as propellant. If it succeeds, the door is open for a new generation of low-cost space operations, as CubeSats are so simple that they can actually be built for almost nothing by university undergrads.

This lander represents a series of firsts and will go down as a milestone in aerospace history. Share your thoughts about this news, including your relevant experiences, in the comments below.