Getting to the core of life on Mars

Artist rendition of the formation of rocky bodies in the solar system. (Courtesy NASA /JPL-Caltech)

NASA has approved funding for the Mars InSight lander, a mission that will enable scientists to address one of the most fundamental issues of planetary and solar system science – understanding how the rocky planets of the inner solar system (including Earth) were formed more than four billion years ago.

The mission will investigate the interior structure and processes of Mars as well as examining tectonic activity and meteorite impacts on the planet, possibly providing some insight about such phenomena on Earth.

“We’ve all been captivated by the Mars Rover’s stunning images of the surface of Mars, and this is our chance to peer into the ‘hidden’ processes that shaped that landscape,” says
UBC geophysicist Catherine Johnson, the sole Canadian on the mission’s scientific team. “This is a fantastic opportunity to determine whether the Red Planet is seismically active, how large its core is, and to determine why it doesn’t have a magnetic field today.”

The InSight lander is scheduled to launch and land on Mars in 2016. It would bore the deepest holes into Mars to date – to a depth of five metres – to install heat probe instrumentation below the surface, and place seismic instrumentation on the surface.

Part of Johnson’s role in the mission will be to help analyze the more than 29 gigabytes of seismic data which will be transmitted back to Earth by the lander annually. She’ll also work to locate where quakes are happening beneath Mars’s surface, and determine the size and state (liquid or solid) of the planet’s core.

Johnson has previously worked on understanding Mars’s ancient magnetic field and its relationship to the history of the planet’s volcanic activity and the atmosphere. The InSight mission will help explain why Mars, unlike Earth, no longer has a magnetic field.

Led by Mars Exploration Rover project scientist Bruce Banerdt and other specialists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, InSight’s international science team includes co-investigators from the US, France, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Japan, Switzerland and the UK. It will be equipped with two science instruments that will measure the planet’s pulse or internal activity, its temperature, and its gravitational field.

Scientists will be able to interpret this data to understand the planet’s history, its interior structure and activity, and the forces that shaped rocky planet formation in the inner solar system. Johnson is currently a participating scientist on NASA’s MESSENGER Discovery mission and an investigator on the OSIRIS REx New Frontiers Mission.

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