Exploring Our Universe with ‘InSight’

Written by Jeff Goldader, Upper School science teacher with a PhD in astronomy.

 

Today, NASA attempted another landing on Mars, and some of our Baldwin science students took the time to learn about the mission. A little lander called “InSight,” about the size of a dining room table, successfully touched down on a plain on Mars. Spaceflight isn’t easy. In seven minutes, the lander went from being an interplanetary spacecraft to being at rest on the surface of Mars.

Insight is a geology station.  Its main instrument is a seismometer, to look for “Marsquakes,” which will help us learn if Mars is geologically active at the present time. Mars boasts the largest volcanoes in the solar system, but they look to have been inactive for millions of years. A secondary goal is to drill a hole several meters deep and use what amounts to a thermometer to measure how much heat is released by the center of Mars. This is related to Mars being geologically active, because on Earth, it is heat released by the core of our planet that is the root cause of earthquakes and volcanoes.

Spaceflight is one of the areas in which science and technology blend together. A lander like Insight required the talents of probably over 1,000 scientists and engineers of every type, from astronomers to geologists, from electrical to mechanical to chemical engineers and programmers, and … it’s a long list. As I told my students this morning, Baldwin students have majored in the kinds of fields that are necessary for missions like Insight. There’s no reason they can’t one day be part of a team exploring the universe.

We study Mars to try to understand the past of our own Earth. In the past, Mars was warmer, and there are many reasons to suspect it had liquid water, maybe oceans of it. But today, Mars is in a perpetual deep freeze, with most of the water locked in polar ice caps and frozen in the soil. In the ice and rocks of Mars are clues to what it was like back when it was warm, and could have been a home for life. The upcoming “Mars 2020” rover will be landing in a place that may have had the right conditions for life in the distant past, and it will cache rock samples for return to Earth on a later mission. By studying Mars, we might find clues as to how life started on Earth long ago.