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How Swindon will make its mark on Mars
AN INSTRUMENT funded by the Swindon-based UK Space Agency has been selected to travel on a new rocket probe to Mars to investigate how the Red Planet was created at the dawn of the Solar System.
The SEIS-SP, designed to investigate the interior structure and processes of Mars, will travel on NASA’s newly announced InSight mission, set to launch in 2016, which will take the first look into the deep interior of Mars to investigate why the Red Planet evolved so differently from Earth.
The seismometer will listen to detect ‘Marsquakes’ – to see if Mars has similar quakes to Earth – and use this information to map the boundaries between the rock layers.
This will help determine if the planet has a liquid or solid core, and provide some clues as to why its surface is not divided up into tectonic plates as on Earth.
Detailed knowledge of the interior of Mars in comparison to Earth will help scientists understand better how rocky planets form and evolve. The SEIS-SP will be provided by space scientists at Imperial College London and the University of Oxford, headed by Dr Tom Pike.
The announcement comes just days after the Curiosity rover sent back its first colour photos of the Martian landscape. Insight will join Curiosity, a car-sized surface rover that landed earlier this month, to search for habitats where microbial life could thrive on Mars.
Dr David Williams, chief executive of the UK Space Agency, based at Polaris House, North Star, said: “We are delighted that Dr Pike and his team will be playing a crucial role in the InSight mission.
“Placing the first seismometer on Mars has long been a goal of international scientists, and this is a great example of the pioneering, world-class science and technology supported by the UK Space Agency.
“The technical challenge is significant but the UK team are proving themselves more than equal to it. The scientific outcomes may well revolutionise our understanding of Mars – and by extension its nearest neighbour: Earth.
“Where previous Mars missions have scratched the surface, InSight will be digging deeper for the planet’s secrets.”
The InSight spacecraft will be a static lander that will carry four instruments. There will also be two cameras and a robotic arm, a sensor that will accurately determine the degree to which the planet wobbles on its axis, and a probe that will be pushed into the planet’s surface to reveal how the planet is cooling.
All the data combined will inform researchers about the internal state of Mars today and how it has changed through the aeons.
Previous exploration of Mars has revealed that the Red Planet was much more geologically active in the past. What has not been established is when, and why, this activity ceased.
NASA officials anticipate it will take six months for InSight to reach Mars, and then a full Martian year – about 680 Earth days – to gather the data it is looking for.