March 19th, 2019

Minitremors detected on Mars for first time

NASA’s InSight lander places a protective, dome-shaped shield above its seismometer. JPL-CALTECH/NASA

After months of delicate maneuvering, NASA’s InSight lander has finished placing its hypersensitive seismometer on the surface of Mars. The instrument is designed to solve mysteries about the planet’s interior by detecting the booming thunder of “marsquakes.” But just a few weeks into its run, the car-size lander has already heard something else: the minute tremors that continually rock our red neighbor. If marsquakes are the drum solo, these microseisms, as they’re known, are the bass line.

The signal first became apparent in early February, as soon as the lander placed a protective shield over the seismometer, said Philippe Lognonné, a planetary seismologist at Paris Diderot University who heads the team that runs the instrument, in a talk here today at the annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. “We do believe that these signals are waves coming from Mars.” This is the first time, he said, that such microseisms have been detected on another planet.

On Earth, microseisms are ubiquitous, caused largely by the sloshing of the ocean by storms and tides. Mars, despite the dreams of science fiction writers, has no present-day oceans. Instead, this newly discovered noise is likely caused by low-frequency pressure waves from atmospheric winds that rattle the surface, inducing shallow, longer-period waves in the surface, called Rayleigh waves, Lognonné said.

March 5th, 2019

Mars InSight’s Rock-Hammer is About Half a Meter Down and Has Already Run into Rocks

NASA’s InSight lander is busy deploying its Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) into the Martian soil and has encountered some resistance. The German Aerospace Center (DLR), who designed and built the HP3 as part of the InSight mission, has announced that the instrument has hit not one, but two rocks in the sub-surface. For now the HP3 is in a resting phase, and it’s not clear what will happen next.

The HP3 is designed to measure the heat coming from Mars’ interior and to tell us something about the source of that heat. The basic idea is to determine how Mars formed, and if it formed the same way Earth did. It’ll also tell us something about how rocky planets in general form and evolve. But to do that, it has to get underground.

The HP3 uses a hammer system to pound itself into the ground. It works in phases, spending about four hours at a time hammering into the surface. But all that hammering creates a lot of friction and heat, so the HP3 rests for a couple days while things cool down. Then it measures the heat before continuing the cycle.

February 22nd, 2019

With the best air pressure sensor ever on Mars, scientists find a mystery

Martian hourly weather data for Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. Note the kinks in the air pressure curve at 07:00 and 19:00 daily.

There’s a new meteorologist on Mars. Although NASA’s InSight spacecraft landed on the red planet late in 2018 to measure the planet’s geology—primarily by listening for Mars quakes—it also brought some sophisticated meteorology equipment with it.

The space agency has set up a website to share that information, which includes not only daily high and low temperatures but also unprecedented hourly data on wind speed, direction, and air pressure for InSight’s location near the equator in Elysium Planitia. “We thought it was something that people might have some fun with,” Cornell University’s Don Banfield, who leads InSight’s weather science, told Ars.

Other spacecraft have brought comparable temperature and wind sensors to Mars before, but none have carried such a precise air pressure sensor. The new sensor is 10 times more sensitive than any previous instrument because InSight needs to detect slight movements in the Martian ground, and from such movements infer details about the red planet’s interior. For this, weather matters.

The Martian atmosphere may be very thin—typically it varies between 700 and 740 pascals at the surface, less than one percent of Earth’s surface pressure—but it nonetheless can induce slight tilts in the Martian surface. The air pressure sensor will therefore help scientists calibrate the lander’s seismometer so that any tilting due to higher or lower air pressure can be filtered out of the data. It’s actually pretty amazing that even so thin an atmosphere can have a slight effect on the Martian surface and that InSight’s seismometer is sensitive enough to detect it.

February 8th, 2019

NASA’s first interplanetary CubeSats fall silent beyond Mars

After a successful mission that pushed the limits of small satellite technology, ground controllers have lost contact with two briefcase-sized CubeSats beyond Mars, NASA said Tuesday.

The pioneering Mars Cube One, or MarCO, mission set records for the farthest distance CubeSats have ever operated, accompanying NASA’s InSight lander to Mars after a May 5 launch atop an Atlas 5 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

The twin MarCO spacecraft relayed telemetry from InSight as it entered the Martian atmosphere Nov. 26 and successfully landed on the Red Planet, giving engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California updates on the lander’s progress. albeit with an eight-minute delay due to the time it took radio signals to travel the 91 million miles (146 million kilometers) from Mars to Earth.

InSight could have succeeded without MarCO, but engineers would have had to wait hours to receive confirmation of the landing.

But MarCO was conceived primarily as an experimental mission to prove that CubeSats, with some modifications, could withstand the perils of deep space travel. CubeSats are much less expensive than larger satellites, and can cost less than $1 million to design and build for missions in Earth orbit.

The Mars Cube One mission cost $18.5 million, once engineers at JPL outfitted the satellites with a new type of radio, innovative antennas, a cold gas propulsion system, and other custom features needed for interplanetary spaceflight.

That’s still a fraction of the InSight mission’s $993 million cost.

February 6th, 2019

Motors on Mars: The technology being sent to explore Mars

Artist’s impression of the Mars helicopter

The US space agency, NASA, has announced that its Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) will be sending a helicopter to the Red Planet on the upcoming Mars 2020 rover mission. It will land on Mars while attached to the bottom of the rover in February 2021. During the first 30 days of the mission, it will undertake several autonomous flights, each lasting up to 90 seconds to send the first aerial images (not taken by a satellite) of Mars back to Earth.

For the small helicopter to fly, it takes an enormous engineering effort. The thin air on Mars is comparable to conditions on Earth at an altitude of 30km. Also, taking the reduced Martian gravity into account, the helicopter needs to be very light (1.8kg) and can only carry small batteries.

The components used therefore must be extremely energy-efficient. Six of maxon motors’ 10mm diameter DCX precision micro motors, which have been used in previous Mars missions, will be used to move the swashplate, adjusting the inclination of the rotor blades, to control the vehicle.

The propulsion system is designed and built by AeroVironment, working closely with maxon engineers, under contract from JPL.

“Being part of another Mars pioneering project makes us incredibly proud,” says Eugen Elmiger, CEO of maxon motor.

February 5th, 2019

Watch InSight’s Busy First Months on Mars

NASA’s InSight lander tucked its seismic instrument under a shield to protect it from wind and extreme temperatures. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Since InSight’s landing on Mars late last year, it’s been hard at work studying what lays beneath the surface of the Red Planet. The lander’s mission is to understand Mars’ deep interior, what it’s made of and how the planet moves. To that end, InSight has been studying the area around it, practicing its movements, and scouting the best locations to place instruments. And now, the science is kicking into gear.

To accomplish its mission, InSight needs to place a few instruments on the surface and then monitor them. The lander has two main instruments it has to re-home: the Heat flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) and the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS). The first will measure temperatures underneath Mars’ surface, while the latter will listen for subtle Mars-quakes. InSight also carries a Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment (RISE), but this will remain riding piggy-back on the lander for the duration of the two-year mission.

December 13th, 2018

NASA’s InSight Takes Its First Selfie

This is NASA InSight’s first selfie on Mars. It displays the lander’s solar panels and deck. On top of the deck are its science instruments, weather sensor booms and UHF antenna. The selfie was taken on Dec. 6, 2018 (Sol 10).
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s InSight lander isn’t camera-shy. The spacecraft used a camera on its robotic arm to take its first selfie — a mosaic made up of 11 images. This is the same imaging process used by NASA’s Curiosity rover mission, in which many overlapping pictures are taken and later stitched together. Visible in the selfie are the lander’s solar panel and its entire deck, including its science instruments.

Mission team members have also received their first complete look at InSight’s “workspace” — the approximately 14-by-7-foot (4-by-2-meter) crescent of terrain directly in front of the spacecraft. This image is also a mosaic composed of 52 individual photos.

In the coming weeks, scientists and engineers will go through the painstaking process of deciding where in this workspace the spacecraft’s instruments should be placed. They will then command InSight’s robotic arm to carefully set the seismometer (called the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure, or SEIS) and heat-flow probe (known as the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package, or HP3) in the chosen locations. Both work best on level ground, and engineers want to avoid setting them on rocks larger than about a half-inch (1.3 cm).

December 7th, 2018

NASA InSight Lander ‘Hears’ Martian Winds

One of InSight’s 7-foot (2.2 meter) wide solar panels was imaged by the lander’s Instrument Deployment Camera, which is fixed to the elbow of its robotic arm.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) lander, which touched down on Mars just 10 days ago, has provided the first ever “sounds” of Martian winds on the Red Planet. A media teleconference about these sounds will be held today at 12:30 p.m. EST (9:30 a.m. PST).

InSight sensors captured a haunting low rumble caused by vibrations from the wind, estimated to be blowing between 10 to 15 mph (5 to 7 meters a second) on Dec. 1, from northwest to southeast. The winds were consistent with the direction of dust devil streaks in the landing area, which were observed from orbit.

“Capturing this audio was an unplanned treat,” said Bruce Banerdt, InSight principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. “But one of the things our mission is dedicated to is measuring motion on Mars, and naturally that includes motion caused by sound waves.”

December 4th, 2018

NASA InSight Lander’s New Home on Mars ‘a Large Sandbox’

NASA’s InSight spacecraft flipped open the lens cover on its Instrument Context Camera (ICC) on Nov. 30, 2018, and captured this view of Mars. Located below the deck of the InSight lander, the ICC has a fisheye view, creating a curved horizon. Some clumps of dust are still visible on the camera’s lens. One of the spacecraft’s footpads can be seen in the lower right corner. The seismometer’s tether box is in the upper left corner. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

With InSight safely on the surface of Mars, the mission team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, is busy learning more about the spacecraft’s landing site. They knew when InSight landed on Nov. 26 that the spacecraft had touched down on target, a lava plain named Elysium Planitia. Now they’ve determined that the vehicle sits slightly tilted (about 4 degrees) in a shallow dust- and sand-filled impact crater known as a “hollow.” InSight has been engineered to operate on a surface with an inclination up to 15 degrees.

“The science team had been hoping to land in a sandy area with few rocks since we chose the landing site, so we couldn’t be happier,” said InSight project manager Tom Hoffman of JPL. “There are no landing pads or runways on Mars, so coming down in an area that is basically a large sandbox without any large rocks should make instrument deployment easier and provide a great place for our mole to start burrowing.”

Rockiness and slope grade factor into landing safety and are also important in determining whether InSight can succeed in its mission after landing. Rocks and slopes could affect InSight’s ability to place its heat-flow probe – also known as “the mole,” or HP3 – and ultra-sensitive seismometer, known as SEIS, on the surface of Mars.

December 3rd, 2018

Five planned missions to Mars

An artist’s impression of SpaceX’s Starship and Super Heavy Rocket. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Space agencies around the world are set to explore the red planet, while Elon Musk has even grander plans.