Just over 400 years ago, Galileo made the first telescopic observations of Mars. Ever since, earthlings have been obsessed with watching the Red Planet.
In the 19th century, astronomer Percival Lowell noted that canals seemed to line the surface of Mars, according to National Geographic. Curiosity about Mars’s surface has persisted. While dozens of robotic missions have flown by, orbited and landed on Mars since the 20th century, a new Mars lander will begin the first detailed study of the planet’s interior after it lands later this year.
Hunting for Marsquakes
Aiming to open a new chapter in space discoveries, NASA’s InSight lander began its 205-day, 485 million-kilometer journey to Earth’s neighbor, with a boost from a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket that took off from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base on May 5, 2018. It’s scheduled to land on Mars on Nov. 26, according to NASA.
InSight, short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, will examine the planet’s deep interior to build on our knowledge of how tectonically active it is as well as the formation of the rocky planets of our solar system, including Earth.
To do that, the Mars lander has three main instruments: the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS), a seismometer that will try to detect “marsquakes” for the first time; the Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment (RISE), which tracks Mars’ wobble as it orbits, potentially shedding light on the composition of its core; and the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Probe (HP3), which can take temperature readings up to almost 5 meters below the surface — the deepest drill ever done outside Earth, said NASA.
Life on Mars, Past and Future
NASA’s Curiosity rover, which has been on Mars since 2012, found the first confirmed particles of organic matter on Mars in 2014, according to NASA. In June 2018, researchers reported in Science that data from Curiosity “provide conclusive evidence for the presence of organic compounds — thiophenic, aromatic, and aliphatic compounds — in drill samples from Mars’ Gale crater.”
The presence of organic molecules has fueled the hunt for water on Mars. Researchers affiliated with the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter, which launched in 2003, reported the discovery of a lake of liquid water beneath the frozen ice cap on Mars’ south pole, said Science.
Commenting on the findings, NASA reported that InSight “will provide crucial data on how much heat escapes the planet and where liquid water could exist near its surface.” If InSight can determine whether Mars is seismically “alive,” it could aid in humanity’s search for extraterrestrials.
Any mention of water on Mars stokes popular interest in the prospects of humans exploring and colonizing Mars. Under its Space Policy Directive 1, the U.S. is planning to return astronauts to the moon and eventually send people to Mars, said NASA.
The challenges of getting them to the Red Planet safely are manifold. For instance, scientists are still debating how much radiation Mars-bound humans could withstand and how they could be best protected during the long journey, according to Smithsonian.com. Even if that problem is solved, Mars explorers must be provided with shelter, food and water.
Boots on the Regolith
If there is a water source already on Mars, the concept of building a long-term colony could be a lot more feasible.
Mars One is a one-way mission to Mars in efforts to establish a permanent settlement, with no possibility of returning to Earth. Spearheaded by entrepreneur Bas Landorp, Mars One noted, “Mars is an unforgiving environment where a small mistake or accident can result in large failure, injury, and death. Every component must work perfectly. Every system (and its backup) must function without fail or human life is at risk.”
Could InSight help pave the way for a future settlement on Mars? When it comes to space discoveries, the more we know about the Red Planet, the better. Once the latest Mars lander gets to work, we’ll begin a whole new chapter in our understanding of this new frontier.