What NASA's InSight probe could tell us about life on Mars

What NASA's InSight probe could tell us about life on Mars
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NASA Mars InSight probe is the latest visitor from Earth to arrive on Mars.

After a voyage lasting nearly seven months, the probe entered the Martian atmosphere. For seven nail-biting minutes, the probe decelerated from 12,000 miles an hour to just five miles an hour. Then InSight touched down on the Elysium Planitia.

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It will begin to study the interior of Mars in greater detail than has ever before been achieved.

The main goal of most of the science missions to the Martian surface, ranging from the original Viking landers during the 1970s to 2012’s Mars Curiosity, still rolling about after six years, has been to search for signs of life. Mars InSight is a solar-powered robotic geologist designed to study the interior of the Red Planet, including its mantle and core.

InSight will deploy three instruments during the coming months:

The Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment (RISE) will transmit signals between InSight and the Deep Space Network. By measuring the signals, scientists hope to determine how much Mars wobbles, deducing whether it has a liquid or solid core and of which elements it is comprised.

The Heat Flow and Physical Properties Probe (HP3) will penetrate to five meters beneath the Martian surface. The instrument will measure heat flowing from the interior of Mars.

The Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) will measure seismic vibrations passing through Mars, whether they are caused by a meteor strike, a Marsquake, or the movement of water beneath the surface.

Mars’ changing geology has affected the evolution of the planet from the very beginning of the solar system.

Scientists believe that billions of years ago Mars, like Earth, had a magnetic field generated by its core. However, that magnetic field failed, allowing solar wind to strip away Mars’ formerly thick atmosphere and evaporate its deep oceans, lakes, and rivers.

Whatever life may have existed on Mars, except perhaps for some elusive microbes, died out. InSight may provide some answers as to why the calamitous collapse of the Red Planet’s magnetic field occurred. The mission is expected to last for two years.

The next robotic probe that NASA plans to send to Mars is the Mars 2020, an enhanced version of the Mars Curiosity rover. The space agency recently selected the Jezero Crater for its next Martian rover. Jezero is a geologically rich area with signs of having had surface water in the distant past.

Besides instruments that will study Mars’ geology, possible life signs, and weather, Mars 2020 will carry a device that will transform the carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere into oxygen, an important capability that would benefit human explorers. The probe will also carry a solar-powered drone that will become the first aircraft from Earth to fly over Mars, scouting possible destinations for Mars 2020 from the air.

Mars 2020 will also demonstrate sample collection and caching. It will pick up geological samples and deposit them at a set location for possible pickup by a future spacecraft. Scientists are eager to acquire Mars rocks and soil for study in Earth laboratories.

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Other than Earth, Mars has become the most studied planet in the solar system. An entire fleet of orbiters, landers, and rovers has examined Mars, ferreting out its secrets, and expanding humankind’s knowledge of the fourth rock from the sun. When humans finally land on Mars, envisioned for the 2030s, they will have a lot of information to guide them in the exploration and, eventually, the settlement of the Red Planet.

NASA’s current attention is focused on returning astronauts to the moon, primarily for practical reasons. But the day that the first humans set foot on Mars will be fraught with romance and awe, a time when people from the planet Earth went where no one has gone before — a feat not seen since July 20, 1969.

Finally, one should not forget Elon Musk’s dream of establishing a city on Mars, the first of its kind beyond the Earth. The notion of a multi-planet civilization is a compelling one. A Mars colony would certainly make the 21st century what we were promised so many decades ago. The settlement of Mars will ensure the long-term survival of the human species, a fine goal for any space effort.

Mark Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.”