Posted on September 1st, 2015

Reaching Orbit – Mars

The 535-seond main engine test of the Space Launch System (SLS) put the engine through its paces. (Photo Credit: NASA)

This month I am doing a rundown on Mars related events as there are some very interesting updates to share. NASA recently tested the Space Launch System (SLS) that will one day hurl Orion deep into space. The 535-second test of the RD-25 rocket engine collected performance data on the main engine. The engine was tested under the same kind of pressure and environment it will experience during an actual launch to detect any problems with the system and record its performance. Someday the SLS behemoth will launch humans into space, so it’s better to be safe than sorry!

While all eyes are on Orion and the fascination of human exploration, there are other lander missions to Mars in our future before we lift off from Earth. NASA’s next Mars mission is a little different than the rover, but very similar to a previous mission to the planet’s north pole in 2007. InSight, which stands for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigation, Geodesy and Heat Transport, uses a plan that was originally implemented for the Phoenix mission to study ice on Mars. By using existing designs and instruments, NASA is able to cut design and testing costs while still accomplishing their goal to study the interior of the rocky planet.


This artist’s concept of the InSight lander labels the different instruments on the rover that will help measure the planet’s interior. (Graphic Credit: NASA-JPL-Caltech)

InSight is equipped with a seismometer which will record activity beneath the surface of Mars to get a better sense of its structure. It will also deploy a probe that will burrow five meters below the surface and measure the precise temperature every 10-centimeters (cm). This will give researchers a profile of temperature near the surface, and combined with other measurements, they can estimate the rate heat is escaping from the planet’s interior. InSight will also measure the Mar’s wobble as it orbits around the Sun – this information hints at the internal structure of the planet.

Unraveling the interior mechanics of Mars is not just intended to better understand the planet but the geologic evolution of all the rocky planets in our solar system, including Earth. Mars, unlike Earth, does not have plate tectonics, so its geologic history is relatively intact compared to our planet. Researchers can learn a lot more about Earth’s history by looking at the history of Mars.

To help the public better understand the research of and exploration on Mars, NASA released two new online tools. Mars Trek is a compilation of images of Mar’s surface taken from 50 years of exploration, now anyone can explore the planet. The map lets you overlay multiple images, measure surface features and even print a 3-D topography map. It is also used to study possible landing site for the next Mars rover. Very similar to the rover already cruising on the Martian planet, the new rover is set to launch in 2020 using many of the same designs in the current version. Speaking of the Mars rover, Experience Curiosity lets users see what the Curiosity rover and NASA researchers see. Using 3-D images taken by the rover, you can explore some of the panoramic views of the planet and understand the science experiments performed there. I hope you have enjoyed the Mars rundown, and I’ll see you next month!

Katie Nelson
Geospatial Ninja
(303) 718-7163

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