VANCOUVER - As NASA's Curiosity rover beams back photos of the rocky surface of Mars, another group of scientists, including one from British Columbia, is preparing the next mission to uncover what's underneath.
Prof. Catherine Johnson, of the University of British Columbia, is among the scientists whose project, named Insight, was selected by NASA this week as part of the U.S. space agency's Discovery program, which invites proposals from within the scientific community.
Insight will send a stationary robotic lander to Mars in 2016, drilling down several metres into the surface as it uses a combination of temperature readings and seismic measurements to help scientists on this planet learn more about the Martian core.
What they find, explains Johnson, will offer not only a better picture of how Mars has evolved in its 4.5-billion-year history, but it will also add to scientists' knowledge of how other planets, including Earth, form.
"It's understanding the Earth's nearest neighbours to understand: is the earth typical or different from its nearest neighbours? It's really about the context of understanding our own planet," explains Johnson, who is the only researcher from a Canadian institution on the project.
"When we think about the astronomy world, we now know about many other planetary systems in the universe, and yet we don't know what the basic structure of Earth and the Earth's neighbours are. It's really what should be on page 2 or 3 of the textbooks in order to be able to understand the Earth."
The Insight lander is expected to launch in March 2016 and touch down on the red planet in September of that year.
A seismometer will measure seismic and tectonic activity such as quakes on the surface, while a probe will drill down five metres into the ground to take temperature readings.
Johnson will be among the scientists analysing the data, which she says will be used to determine the size of the Martian core, its temperature and its composition — that is, how much of it is solid and how much is still liquid.
Currently, scientists can only speculate on what's below the surface of Mars, but Insight will help confirm whether those guesses are accurate.
Their conclusions will offer more information on what happens in the early stages of a planet's history, says Johnson.
"This experiment tells us about the end result of the very first stage in planetary evolution — what happens after you have a big lump that's a mixture of rock, metal and a bunch of gasses," she says.
"Knowing exactly how big it (the core) is and which part of it is liquid and which part of it is solid would provide huge constraints on how the planet has evolved over its history. At the moment, we can make lots of guesses, but it's really important to understanding Mars and to understand why Mars and the Earth are so different."
Johnson also wants to determine when Mars had a magnetic field — and when it lost it.
Scientists believe Mars had both an atmosphere and a magnetic field until about 3.8 or 3.9 billion years ago, but they don't know exactly when they disappeared or why.
In particular, Johnson wants to know which vanished first. In other words, did the atmosphere disappear because there was suddenly no magnetic field, or was it the other way around?
The Insight mission will be run by the Jet Propulsion Lab in California. The mission's costs are capped at US$425 million, measured in 2010 dollars.
Johnson is currently working on another NASA Discovery project, the Messenger mission to Mercury.
That mission sent an orbiting spacecraft to the solar system's smallest planet, arriving last year. It took more than six years for Messenger to complete the 7.9-billion-kilometre journey.
Johnson has also studied quake activity in the moon using data originally gathered in the fabled Apollo missions
'Still Life with Rover'
This full-resolution self-portrait shows the deck of NASA's Curiosity rover from the rover's Navigation camera. The back of the rover can be seen at the top left of the image, and two of the rover's right side wheels can be seen on the left. The undulating rim of Gale Crater forms the lighter color strip in the background. Bits of gravel, about 0.4 inches (1 centimeter) in size, are visible on the deck of the rover. This mosaic is made of 20 images, each of 1,024 by 1,024 pixels, taken late at night on Aug. 7 PDT (early morning Aug. 8 EDT). It uses an average of the Navcam positions to synthesize the point of view of a single camera, with a field of view of 120 degrees. Seams between the images have been minimized as much as possible. The wide field of view introduces some distortion at the edges of the mosaic. (NASA)
This image shows the landing site of NASA's Curiosity rover and destinations scientists want to investigate. Curiosity landed inside Gale Crater on Mars on Aug. 5 PDT (Aug. 6 EDT) at the green dot, within the Yellowknife quadrangle. The team has chosen for it to move toward the region marked by a blue dot that is nicknamed Glenelg. That area marks the intersection of three kinds of terrain. The science team thought the name Glenelg was appropriate because, if Curiosity traveled there, it would visit it twice -- both coming and going -- and the word Glenelg is a palindrome. Then, the rover will aim to drive to the blue spot marked "Base of Mt. Sharp", which is a natural break in the dunes that will allow Curiosity to begin scaling the lower reaches of Mount Sharp. At the base of Mt. Sharp are layered buttes and mesas that scientists hope will reveal the area's geological history. These annotations have been made on top of an image acquired by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
his image shows a closer view of the landing site of NASA's Curiosity rover and a destination nearby known as Glenelg. Curiosity landed inside Gale Crater on Mars on Aug. 5 PDT (Aug. 6 EDT) at the blue dot. It is planning on driving to an area marked with a red dot that is nicknamed Glenelg. That area marks the intersection of three kinds of terrain. Starting clockwise from the top of this image, scientists are interested in this brighter terrain because it may represent a kind of bedrock suitable for eventual drilling by Curiosity. The next terrain shows the marks of many small craters and intrigues scientists because it might represent an older or harder surface. The third, which is the kind of terrain Curiosity landed in, is interesting because scientists can try to determine if the same kind of rock texture at Goulburn, an area where blasts from the descent stage rocket engines scoured away some of the surface, also occurs at Glenelg. The science team thought the name Glenelg was appropriate because, if Curiosity traveled there, it would visit the area twice -- both coming and going -- and the word Glenelg is a palindrome. After Glenelg, the rover will aim to drive to the base of Mount Sharp. These annotations have been made on top of an image acquired by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. (NASA)
Scientists have now named the four marks near NASA's Curiosity rover where blasts from the descent stage rocket engines blew away some of the Martian surface material. Scientists have named the scour marks, clockwise from the most north: Burnside, Goulburn, Hepburn and Sleepy Dragon. These names were chosen by the science team from a list of rock formations in northern Canada because they all have something to do with heat, for example "burn" or "dragon." This cropped image is part of a larger panorama from Curiosity's Mast Camera (see pia16051).
Goulburn Scour Mark
This cropped image from NASA's Curiosity rover shows one set of marks on the surface of Mars where blasts from the descent-stage rocket engines blew away some of the surface material. This particular scour mark is near the rear left wheel of the rover and is the left-most scour mark on the left side of this larger panorama from Curiosity's Mast Camera (see PIA16051). This scour mark is named Goulburn after a 2-billion year-old sequence of rocks in northern Canada.
This image (cut out from a mosaic) shows the view from the landing site of NASA's Curiosity rover toward the lower reaches of Mount Sharp, where Curiosity is likely to begin its ascent through hundreds of feet (meters) of layered deposits. The lower several hundred feet (meters) show evidence of bearing hydrated minerals, based on orbiter observations. The terrain Curiosity will explore is marked by hills, buttes, mesas and canyons on the scale of one-to-three story buildings, very much like the Four Corners region of the western United States. A scale bar indicates a distance of 1.2 miles (2 kilometers). Curiosity's 34-millimeter Mast Camera acquired this high-resolution image on Aug. 8, 2012 PDT (Aug. 9 EDT). This image shows the colors modified as if the scene were transported to Earth and illuminated by terrestrial sunlight. This processing, called "white balancing," is useful to scientists for recognizing and distinguishing rocks by color in more familiar lighting. (NASA)
This image shows the calibration target for the Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument on NASA's Curiosity rover. The calibration target is one square and a group of nine circles that look dark in the black-and-white image. The calibration target set can be seen in the middle left in this image, to the right of the rover's power source. The materials used in these circles are the types of materials scientists anticipated they might encounter on Mars. The square is a titanium alloy with a painted edge. The ChemCam instrument will be firing a series of powerful, but invisible, laser pulses at a target rock or soil. It is located on the rover's mast, near the Navigation camera that took this image. A telescopic camera known as the remote micro-imager will show the context of the spots hit with the laser. This image was taken by the right-side Navigation camera on Aug. 16, 2012. (NASA)
Curiosity's First Rock Star
This mosaic image shows the first target NASA's Curiosity rover aims to zap with its Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument. ChemCam will be firing a laser at this rock, provisionally named N165, and analyzing the glowing, ionized gas, called plasma, that the laser excites. The instrument will analyze that spark with a telescope and identify the chemical elements in the target. The rock is just off to the right of the rover. This image is part of a set of images obtained by Curiosity's Mast Camera on Aug. 8 PDT (Aug. 9 EDT). See PIA16051 for the larger mosaic. (NASA)
Head of Mast on Mars Rover Curiosity
This view of the head of the remote sensing mast on the Mars Science Laboratory mission's rover, Curiosity, shows seven of the 17 cameras on the rover. Two pairs of Navigation cameras (Navcams), among the rover's 12 engineering cameras, are the small circular apertures on either side of the head. On the top are the optics of the Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) investigation, which includes a laser and a telescopic camera. The Mast Camera (MastCam) instrument includes a 100-millimeter-focal-length camera called MastCam-100 or M-100, and a 34-millimeter-focal-length camera called the MastCam-34 or M-34. The two cameras of the MastCam are both scientific and natural color imaging systems. The M-100 looks through a 1.2-inch (3-centimeter) baffle aperture, and the M-34 looks through a 2.1-inch (5.3-centimete) baffle aperture. (NASA)
Curiosity's First Rock Star, Up-Close
This close-up image shows the first target NASA's Curiosity rover aims to zap with its Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument. ChemCam will be firing a laser at this rock, provisionally named N165, and analyzing the glowing, ionized gas, called plasma, that the laser excites. The instrument will analyze that spark with a telescope and identify the chemical elements in the target. The rock is just off to the right of the rover. This image is part of a set of images obtained by Curiosity's Mast Camera on Aug. 8 PDT (Aug. 9 EDT). See pia16051 for the larger mosaic.