UK universities create earthquake monitor for NASA’s new Mars mission

Posted on 22 Aug 2012

A seismometer designed by Imperial College London and the University of Oxford has been selected to travel to the Red Planet on NASA’s newly announced InSight mission to Mars.

The new mission, set to launch in 2016, will take the first look into the deep interior of Mars to investigate why, as one of our solar system’s rocky planets, the Red Planet evolved so differently from Earth.

The UK-funded SEIS-SP is a Seismometer that will listen for “marsquakes” and use this information to map the boundaries between the rock layers inside Earth’s neighbour. This will help determine if the planet has a liquid or solid core, and provide some clues as to why its surface is not divided up into tectonic plates as on Earth.

The InSight spacecraft will be a static lander that will carry four instruments. The UK SEIS-SP is one of three seismometers that make up the SEIS instrument. There will also be two cameras and a robotic arm; a sensor that will very accurately determine the degree to which the planet wobbles on its axis; and a probe that will be pushed into the planet’s surface to reveal how the planet is cooling.  All the data combined will inform researchers about the internal state of Mars today and how it has changed through the aeons.

Previous exploration of Mars has revealed that the Red Planet was much more geologically active in the past. What has not been established is when and why this activity ceased.  InSight will not only help us to better understand what happened to Mars’s geological activity and atmosphere but will give us an insight into whether the internal structure of Earth is a special case or a more general one.

The UK Space Agency pumped £2m into the project, which required technology to miniaturise a seismometer while maintaining its integrity and resistance to the rigours of spaceflight.

Imperial College London are undertaking the bulk of the technical development, which will involve wafer micromachining, metal deposition, electroplating.

Oxford University are managing the project and will assemble and test the instrument before it is delivered to the French space agency CNES for integration with their VBB instrument, which provides seismic detection at lower frequency bandwidths, before arriving at NASA’s jet propulsion laboratory in the USA.

Dr Tom Pike, principal investigator for the UK seismometer and reader in microengineering at Imperial College London, commented that “the mission will show how the interior, surface and atmosphere of Mars have interacted over its history, with important implications for the possibility of life early in its evolution.”

Dr David Williams, chief executive of the UK Space Agency, said: “Placing the first seismometer on Mars has long been a goal of international scientists, and this is a great example of the pioneering, world-class science and technology.  Where previous Mars missions have scratched the surface, InSight will be digging deeper for the planet’s secrets.”