A lot of things are going on on the Red Planet, with InSight on the way, the Curiosity rover's drill fixed, and a new discovery.
NASA’s InSight spacecraft has just made its first course correction as it heads toward Mars, a major milestone for what could be a critical program in advance of human beings’ arrival on the Red Planet. NASA’s Interior Epxloration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy, and Heat Tranpsort, or InSight as it is called, performed the course correction on May 22.
This will be the first ever mission that will involve looking deep below the Martian ground, looking at the interior of the planet and learning more about the seismic events on the planet that are similar to earthquakes. There are other rovers and orbiters at Mars, but they are focused on other tasks.
InSight’s insights could help us better understand how Mars formed, and therefore also learn more about how other rocky planets like our owned came into existence. The spacecraft was launched earlier this month aboard a United Launch Alliance rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The spacecraft fired its thrusters on May 22, a trajectory correction maneuver that will happen no more than six times as the lander speeds toward the Red Planet.
Scientists expect that InSight will land on Mars around Thanksgiving this year. This first maneuver is the most significant that will happen during this journey.
“This first maneuver is the largest we’ll conduct,” InSight’s deputy mission design and navigation manager Fernando Abilleira was quoted as saying in Sci-News. “The thrusters will fire for about 40 seconds to impart a velocity change of 8.5 mph (3.8 m/sec) to the spacecraft. That will put us in the right ballpark as we aim for Mars. Navigation is all about statistics, probability and uncertainty.”
Meanwhile, scientists are looking into the possibility that rocks on Mars are harboring signs of life from around 4 billion years ago. These rocks which are rich in iron have been found near sites of lakes that exist millions upon millions of years ago and could help us understand whether life once thrived on the Red Planet.
The rocks were formed in lake beds and may be the best place to find fossil evidence. It could be the hiding place of microbes, microscopic creatures, that would be a truly groundbreaking discovery in the history of science should we find evidence of life on another planet, let alone one right next door to us.
The findings were published in the Journal of Geophysical Research.
“There are many interesting rock and mineral outcrops on Mars where we would like to search for fossils, but since we can’t send rovers to all of them we have tried to prioritise the most promising deposits based on the best available information,” Dr. Sean McMahon, a Marie Sklodowska-Curie fellow in the University of Edinburgh’s School of Physics and Astronomy, said in a university statement.
“They formed during the Noachian and Hesperian Periods of Martian history between three and four billion years ago. At that time, the planet’s surface was abundant in water, which could have supported life,” the statement reads. “The rocks are much better preserved than those of the same age on Earth, researchers say. This is because Mars is not subject to plate tectonics – the movement of huge rocky slabs that form the crust of some planets – which over time can destroy rocks and fossils inside them.”
And that’s not all that’s happening on Mars. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has managed to hack into the Mars Curiosity rover to fix its drill, two years after it broke. Now they are once again able to drill into rock samples. Basically, a failed motor caused the drill bit to be unable to retract and extend between stabilizers. But scientists miraculously found a workaround by using the entire arm to push the drill without the stabilizers.
“The team used tremendous ingenuity to devise a new drilling technique and implement it on another planet,” said Curiosity Deputy Project Manager Steve Lee of JPL in a statement. “Those are two vital inches of innovation from 60 million miles away. We’re thrilled that the result was so successful.”
“We’ve been developing this new drilling technique for over a year, but our job isn’t done once a sample has been collected on Mars,” added JPL’s Tom Green, a systems engineer who helped develop and test Curiosity’s new drilling method. “With each new test, we closely examine the data to look for improvements we can make and then head back to our test bed to iterate on the process.”