The most recent NASA mission to Mars, the InSight Lander — short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy, and Heat Transport — will broadcast daily weather reports back to Earth for at least the next two years from the Elysium Planitia plain on the red planet.
However, the main mission of the lander is to map the interior of the planet using a wide array of techniques, primarily seismology.
“We don’t really know that much about the core of Mars. The goal is to understand the interior structure of Mars and heat flow coming out of Mars … to understand how terrestrial planets like Earth, Mars and Venus form,” Don Banfield ’87, principal research scientist, Cornell Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science, told The Sun.
Banfield is a co-investigator and science lead for the Auxiliary Payload Sensor Suite, one of the core data-gathering instruments of the Mars lander.
The lander first left Earth on May 5, 2018, from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, and touched down seven months later on Nov. 26. But despite having been on the planet since late November, the lander hadn’t started transmitting data until recently, according to Banfield.
“We basically spent the first two months, almost three months, just putting the instruments on the ground,” Banfield said.
The team had to survey the surrounding area to make sure it was clear of any rocks or debris, and then slowly place the various instruments.
“We’re hoping to hear ‘Mars’-quakes or perhaps even meteorite impacts that will shake Mars and the shaking will let us do tomography — mapping by use of ultrasound or x rays — on the interior structure of Mars,” Banfield said.
According the Banfield, the lander is measuring the weather on Mars because it can create seismic interference for InSight’s seismometer, and by taking measurements on atmospheric conditions, it will allow the team to filter out this “background noise” to make more accurate measurements.
InSight contains a highly-advanced weather station, with a pair of wind sensors, air temperature sensors, and even a pressure sensor that is 20 times faster and more sensitive that previous missions to Mars, according to Banfield.
While completing its main mission of mapping the interior of Mars, the lander is also transmitting the weather reports back to Earth, where they are displayed on the website for the mission. The reports include temperature highs and lows, wind speeds and direction, and atmospheric pressure.
The website will be updated as long as the InSight mission continues. Currently, the mission is planned to last for slightly over two Earth years — or almost one Mars year — from its launch date.
“The instruments were designed and the noise levels estimated that we would expect we would have enough ‘Mars’-quakes in one Mars year to be able to address the questions we wanted to answer,” Banfield said.
There is also a secondary reason why the mission is only set to last for one Martian year.
According to Banfield, Mars experiences a “dust season” once a Martian year, and the storms could potentially damage or disable the lander, just as they did with the NASA rover ‘Opportunity’.
“We expect there may be more bad dust storms coming, and so InSight might not survive next [Mars] year’s dust storms,” Banfield explained.
However, should the lander survive beyond one Martian year, Banfield says that the team plans to ask NASA for continued funding to keep the mission going.
Until the mission’s eventual end, the weather reports can be found on the lander’s mission website.