InSight Mars Mission

Switzerland: With the ETH on board to Mars

| Editor: Lina Klass

The InSight lander left California for Mars in early May 2018 and, after 485 million kilometres, should land on Mars at the end of November.
The InSight lander left California for Mars in early May 2018 and, after 485 million kilometres, should land on Mars at the end of November. (Source: NASA)

The InSight Mission, part of the NASA Discovery Programme, sent the InSight lander to Mars in early May. On board is the steering and data recording technology of ETH Zurich.

It last happened on May 5th, 04.05 local time. An Atlas rocket carrying the «InSight» lander lifted off from the Vandenberg air force base in California. On board, apart from geophysical instruments, are the Swiss flag and the ETH logo, since the electronics for the seismometer that is meant to record seismic quakes and meteorite strikes were developed by scientists from ETH Zurich.

The researchers from ETH had been waiting for this moment for a long time: Domenico Giardini, professor of seismology and geophysics at ETH Zürich, John Clinton from the Swiss Earthquake Service, and Peter Zweifel, head of the team of engineers who developed the electronics for the Martian seismometer. One hour after liftoff, the rocket, with the last of its fuel, broke free of earth’s gravity. Then the space capsule with the «InSight» lander disconnected from the rocket and the spaceship pursued its pre-calculated course towards Mars. It will arrive there after a journey of over six months.

20 Years of Development

ETH professor Domenico Giardini at the seismometer tests in the laboratory.
ETH professor Domenico Giardini at the seismometer tests in the laboratory. (Source: NASA)

The ETH researchers heaved a great sigh of relief at the successful launch, for the highly-specialised steering and data recording electronics involved almost 20 years of development which is now being applied in the SEIS seismometer of the «inSight» lander. With the aid of SEIS, scientists want to observe seismic activities and meteorite strikes to find out more about the internal structure of Mars.

«We are pleased with the successful launch because we worked almost 20 years for this moment», says Domenico Giardini. He is head of that part of the Mars mission based at ETH. «If everything goes well, we may receive the first test data in early 2019. We’re very excited about that».

Anxious Waiting

But until then, the ETH researchers need patience. After the 485 million kilometre trip through space, things will move fast on 26 November 2018: The lander will penetrate Mars’ thin atmosphere in only six minutes. First it will be slowed down by a giant parachute, and finally 12 landing engines will ensure a soft landing on the extensive Martian plain Elysium Planitia.

After the landing, a robot arm will lower the seismometer to the ground next to the lander and cover it with a protective shield. It will take about two months before all the equipment is set up and their operation checked.

«We‘ll have to wait a few more anxious moments until we’re sure that the scientific instruments have reached Mars in one piece and work», says Peter Zweifel. Although the electronic equipment was tested under the conditions that prevail during the flight and on Mars, there will be no final assurance until the equipment is standing on the Red Planet.

ETH Researchers to be the First to Evaluate the Data

The measurements will be transmitted to Earth every day. Due to the large distance between Mars and Earth, it will take 20 minutes before the data are picked up. «Only when the data reach the data centre regularly and we can recognise and localise seismic signals we may say that the mission has succeeded», says John Clinton. The researchers expect to be able to analyse seismic data on a routine basis as of spring 2019. This data analysis will be continued for at least a Martian year (equivalent to two Earth years). The daily analyses will provide the basis for numerous further scientific tests and for calling up additional data from the Mars station.

The core task of the seismometer is to measure the seismic waves caused by meteorite strikes or quakes on the Martian surface. This will enable the researchers to draw conclusions about the structure and composition of Mars. The scientists also hope to gain new knowledge about comparable events on Earth’s surface and about the origin and development of the planets in our solar system.

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