Will Mars InSight Bring Clear Vision?
Now that NASA’s latest Mars lander has successfully deployed, what findings are worth watching?
There were lots of hugs and fist bumps this afternoon at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory when the Mars InSight lander sent back signals that it was healthy on the surface. This is primarily a geophysical mission, not a search for life. It is also a lander like Phoenix, not a rover. The Mars InSight web page explains what it will try to discover:
InSight, short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, is a Mars lander designed to give the Red Planet its first thorough checkup since it formed 4.5 billion years ago. It is the first outer space robotic explorer to study in-depth the “inner space” of Mars: its crust, mantle, and core.
Its three main instruments include a seismometer, a heat flow probe, and a radio science experiment. The Science Goals page describes what each of the instruments does. Nowhere on the overview page is there any mention of life, astrobiology, or chemical evolution. The only evolution relates to planetary evolution. The heat flow probe, for instance, “will shed light on whether Earth and Mars are made of the same stuff, and provide a sneak peek into how the planet evolved.”
A press release from November 20, “What Two Planetary Siblings Can Teach Us About Life,” noted that Mars’s path of planetary evolution made it a “naked planet” that most likely is not habitable. InSight, therefore, will not even be looking for life as it digs up to 16 feet deep into the soil:
InSight …won’t be looking for life on Mars. But studying its insides — what it’s made of, how that material is layered and how much heat seeps out of it — could help scientists better understand how a planet’s starting materials make it more or less likely to support life.
“No, Mars InSight Won’t Be Searching for Alien Life,” Live Science announced. Don’t expect to hear about Martians, even bacteria-size organisms. In short, the probe will be attempting to clarify conditions for habitability on any planet. InSight’s experiments “could help explain how heat shaped the planet’s surface, making it more or less habitable over time.” Without a global magnetic field, though, Mars is probably lifeless, the article suggests.
Humans on Mars Some Day?
Mars has not been very kind to visitors, Phys.org reminded its readers. Only 40% of landing missions have succeeded. How much worse odds will there be for proposed manned missions, with much heavier craft having to decelerate and land through the red planet’s thin atmosphere? And landing is just the beginning of sorrows. As Apollo astronauts learned from the moon, dust can get into everything and freeze up instruments. On Mars, global dust storms will treat humans to a dark, blinding red for weeks or months at a time. Phys.org writes, “Dust is far from the least of our worries as we plan to colonize Mars,” according to a new book based on a workshop by experts. In addition, radiation will take its toll on astronauts. Because of the radiation, “Mars trip could ‘significantly damage’ astronauts’ stomachs, cause cancer” (Fox News Science). It happened to mice irradiated with Mars-like conditions, so humans will be at much greater risk over extended periods.
We are all for space exploration at CEH, and celebrate with the mission engineers at each successful landing on Mars. It’s a highly-complex and difficult task that shows intelligent design, because sophisticated machines do not just appear on the planet by chance. We also think it is very helpful to characterize the conditions for habitability. For this reason, we appreciate the NASA press releases about InSight downplaying the “search for life” angle, and focusing on geophysical science. The more we know about the conditions for habitability, the more we will appreciate how finely tuned the Earth is for our biosphere. That should lead to Thanksgiving. So thanks to NASA/JPL, and congratulations for another job well done.