NASA Mars InSight Mission Update

July 25, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

If you have been forgetting to keep up with what's going on with the Mars InSight mission I have you covered! Back in early April, I posted about the Mars mission and even shared NASA's weather forecast. I still can't help but get nerded out by the weather updates. I know weather may seem a bit banal but did you ever imagine we would have something as pedestrian as weather forecasts and current conditions from another planet? Think about that. Why didn't NASA do weather for the Moon? Well, weather requires atmosphere and the Moon, well, it's a little deficient there. So there are no variations on the Moon like we have on Earth... or Mars. Okay, there are variations but it's all very black and white on the Moon (almost literally). When the Moon's surface is facing the Sun it's hot. Damn hot. Like 260ºF hot. And when the Moon's surface isn't facing the sun it's cold. Damn cold. Like -280ºF cold. Those are just changes in temperature which is not the same thing as weather. Heating a pot of cold water to boiling isn't weather if you want to think of it that way.

I digress though. Since my last post on this topic, NASA have been working through the issue of getting the MOLE (the instrument designed to dig 5 meters down into the Martian soil) "unstuck". The original working theory was that MOLE hit a large rock, which is still possible, but through their testing a more plausible theory is that the soil is just too soft. MOLE is basically a hammer drill. The design of such an instrument banks on whatever material you are digging into is going to provide resistance which may seem counterintuitive. Obviously solid resistance at the surface would be problematic but for a hammer drill to work it needs friction which it uses against what ever material it's drilling into to drill further down. Now imagine trying to use a jackhammer in dry fluffy sand to drill a hole... sure the jackhammer will make an indentation but just as fast as it makes a hole it will just fill back in with sand, never really making a hole. In this case, though, it sounds like the type of soil NASA are trying to drill into is more like a silt which is compacting and providing no resistance around the drill at all.  Instead of a hammer drill, they have a jackhammer. Just bouncing up and down. The team are still working the problem and hopefully they can find a solution. Sadly, the lander does not have the ability to change MOLE's location unless the engineers can come up with something clever to move it (that's assuming that moving the MOLE a meter or two will change the outcome).

But the news isn't all bad. Remember, part of the mission was to place a seismometer on Mars too. Through data they have collected, they have been able to map what a marsquake looks like (yes! they've measured marsquakes!) and it's starting to reveal what the structure of Mars looks like. Lots of work to do still but the team have already been able to simulate what quakes feel like between Earth, the Moon, and Mars in a really interesting (and slightly comical) video they posted on 22 July.

I continue to stay fascinated by this mission and I'm eagerly awaiting the Mars 2020 mission but I'll need to be patient. We are still a year away from launch and then several months after that before Mars 2020 lands on the surface (expected February 2021). It gets easy to get caught up in books, TV shows, and movies about humans in space and then become impatient at how long these things take but I have to remind myself that in my lifetime we put rovers, and more rovers, and will put even more rovers on Mars. We visited another planet's moon and we have not one but two probes outside of our solar system. During the week that we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first landing on the Moon it's easy to forget everything we have accomplished so far (as a species) in space exploration and we're still working with stone tools. Rovers aren't as "sexy" as people on the surface but they are still huge accomplishments. If you want to see the entirety of space missions unmanned and manned the Planetary Society has a pretty cool infograph of this. If you're a fan of Carl Sagan or Bill Nye then you might even want to consider donating to them (I have). It's a pretty cool organization and, if I'm being honest, wish I had half the smarts to be a part of. :-)

Speaking of Mars 2020, did you know you can send your name to Mars? Check it out! I signed up even though it's a little silly but I was surprised that already nearly 8 million people had already signed up too. Wow!


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