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Is Mars still alive?

Less than 50 days after this year’s World Space Week (4-10 October)—a global network of over 1,000 space-related organizations celebrating the role space plays in bringing the world together for peaceful purposes—NASA’s InSight spacecraft is scheduled to land near the Red Planet’s equator to take the planet’s pulse. As NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in an agency video tweet, “This is an important mission not just for the United States but an important mission for the world, so we can better understand why planets change and ultimately understand even more about our own planet.”

InSight (short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) launched on 5 May 2018 aboard an Atlas rocket from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base—only about three months before Mars approached within 56 million kilometres of Earth (the closest the two planets had come to each other in almost 60,000 years, and a record that will stand until 28 August 2287).

Scheduled to land on 26 November 2018, InSight is targeted to alight on a broad flat plain near the Elysium volcanic province (the second largest on Mars), where eruptive activity has continued until the very recent past and may likely still be volcanically active today. If successful, InSight will become the first outer space robotic explorer to study the interior of Mars, providing clues as to the planet’s origins and present state of geologic activity; no other craft sent to Mars has done this.

Image credit: An artist’s concept portrays a NASA Mars Exploration Rover (Opportunity and Spirit) on the surface of Mars, February 2003 by NASA. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Still, challenges lay ahead. The lander will arrive only five months after one of the most intense dust storms ever recorded erupted on Mars, which completely engulfed the Red Planet and forced NASA’s solar-powered Opportunity rover to be placed in “survival (low-power) mode” to conserve energy. Although the storm began to subside in late July, as of this writing, NASA has yet to re-establish contact with the golf-cart-size rover, which has been operating on the surface of Mars for the past 15 years; scientists fear that the intensity of the storm, which all but obliterated the Sun from the sky, may have fully starved Opportunity’s solar panels of power—two months is a long time to be without being able to recharge its batteries, but optimism still prevails. This dramatic event serves as a reminder of the dangers future space pioneers will face when the time comes for them to explore Mars.

Residual dust may still be in the air when InSight lands, which is not guaranteed; the descent through the thin Martian atmosphere is so difficult that some landing attempts have been known as “seven minutes of terror.” For instance, the European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli lander  made it to the surface in October 2016—but not the way it was intended: a computer glitch caused the craft to drop from a height of 2 to 4 kilometres at a speed of 540 kilometres per hour and impact the surface where it likely exploded.

Given good fortune, InSight, a stationary lander, will spend 738 Earth days (a little more than one Martian year) studying the interior of Mars (NASA’s five previous landers have literally only scratched the surface). Thus, InSight will be the first to sense and study the “vital signs” of Mars far below the surface. Using a 2.4-metre-long arm, the lander will dig 10 to 16 feet deep into the crust, penetrating the surface 15 times deeper than any previous Martian mission. The lander will then use a suite of instruments able to detect seismic activity and analyse the subsurface by studying the thickness and size of Mars’ core, mantle, and crust, as well as the rate at which heat escapes from the planet’s interior. These data will provide not only a glimpse into the evolutionary process that helped shape Mars, but of all the rocky planets in the inner Solar System, including Earth.

Image credit: Sharpest photo ever taken of Mars from Earth, 24 August 2003. Taken by the Advanced Camera for Surveys aboard NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

InSight will also monitor the frequency of ongoing meteorite impacts. This data is important as Mars is closer than Earth to the Asteroid Belt (and has a thinner atmosphere than Earth’s). Thus, knowing the frequency, size, and location of impacts will help in the assessment of potential threats to future colonists on Mars (and how to protect them).

The prospect of sending humans to Mars is on the near horizon. NASA’s current goals include sending humans to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the 2030s. Tens of thousands of scientists from fifteen countries have supported the use of the International Space Station’s laboratories to prove the technologies needed for a mission to Mars: these include investigating the Solar Electric Propulsion needed to send cargo to Mars; establishing a communications system (which will utilise geostationary satellites over future Mars colonies, another in orbit around the Sun, as well as compatible ground stations on Earth); and studying long-term effects of the space environment on the human body. Other future missions, like NASA’s Mars 2020 rover, will not only seek out signs of habitable conditions on Mars in the ancient past, but also search for signs of past microbial life itself.

Meanwhile, engineers and scientists around the country are working feverishly to develop the technologies astronauts will use to one day live and work on Mars, including how to extract water from the soil and any underground reservoirs to create a sustained presence in the extreme Martian environment. Like early European settlers coming to America, planetary pioneers will not be able to take everything they need, so many supplies will need to be gathered and made on site.

The concept focuses on how to turn a planetary body’s atmosphere and dusty soils into everything from building materials for shelters on Mars to rocket fuel for the trip back and safely return home from the next giant leap for humanity. Such dreams bring further hope to international interests in Mars, where a global community can coexist for peaceful purposes — if not for the benefit of science, but for the survival of and expansion of humanity as we explore new worlds in the tradition of the great ocean faring navigators of our past.

Featured Image credit: An artist’s rendition of the InSight lander operating on the surface of Mars by NASA. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

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