When NASA’s InSight lander, which lifts off Saturday, reaches Mars this November, it’ll have to hit the ground running — literally. I mean, it won’t be moving around anywhere, but using its highly sophisticated instruments, the lander will work on measuring Mars’s earthquakes and analyzing the planet’s interior.
One of the most exciting (and overlooked) aspects of the InSight mission is that it could contribute to future astrobiology work on Mars and beyond.
“When it comes to rocky planets, we’ve only studied one in great detail: Earth,” NASA writes about the lander’s mission. “By comparing Earth’s interior to that of Mars, InSight’s team hopes to better understand our solar system. What they learn might even aid the search for Earth-like exoplanets, narrowing down which ones might be able to support life. So while InSight is a Mars mission, it’s also more than a Mars mission.”
To be clear, InSight isn’t going to Mars to look for aliens. But by studying Mars’s interior, the lander could provide valuable, well, insight into what planets could support microbial life. Maybe.
To speculate smartly about life on other planets, we need to have some understanding of those worlds first. A little over 4 billion years ago, Mars was warm, wet and a more suitable place to sustain life. But the planet lost much of its atmosphere, and consequently, Mars became much colder and dryer — more like a litter box than a cradle of life.
But in a study published in Nature Geoscience back in December 2017, researchers argued that the best way to find life on Mars might be to look for microbial life beneath Mars’ surface. The team posited ancient hydrothermal systems could exist in the planet’s subsurface, which could have been home to tiny organisms billions of years ago.
While InSight might not find such systems, the data it collects will inform NASA’s next big mission to the red planet — its yet-to-be-named Mars 2020 rover, which will launch in July of that year. NASA, which describes the rover as a “souped-up science machine,” will look for past and present signs of microbial life using x-ray spectrometers. The more we know about Mars’s interior, the better NASA’s 2020 rover can do its job.
So while InSight might not be a badass alien hunter, it’s doing its best, okay? Please show some respect.