The Mars mission and the BC prof.
Aug 22, 2012 / 6:20 am
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.
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