NASA selects DLR experiment for InSight mission to Mars

The InSight mission will reach Mars in September 2016; it will do this with geophysical experiments including DLR's HP3, which will penetrate several metres into the Martian subsurface to measure the soil's thermo-physical and electrical properties.

The HP3 experiment for the InSight mission was developed at the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft-und Raumfahrt; DLR). HP3 is short for 'Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package'.

"The selection of the mission InSight by NASA demonstrates the importance of exploring our planetary neighbour. I am very pleased that DLR can contribute with their own experiment on this lander to unveiling the mysteries of the Red Planet," said Johann-Dietrich Wörner, Chairman of the DLR Executive Board.

InSight stands for 'Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport'. The mission name clearly explains that geophysical experiments are conducted on and underneath the Martian surface; for example, measuring the velocity of seismic waves or the heat flow.

DLR's HP3 experiment uses an electromechanical impact mechanism capable of driving an instrument container into the Martian surface to a depth of up to five metres. "Until now, a fully-automatic mole of this kind has never been used on any planetary body in our Solar System," states Tim van Zoest, a physicist at the DLR Institute of Space Systems in Bremen, where the impact mechanism was developed. "Comparable experiments to analyse material below the planet's surface have only been conducted manually on the Moon during the US Apollo missions 15 and 17 in the early seventies. But the tools used then were similar to conventional drills."

The sensors on HP3 were developed at the DLR Institute of Planetary Research in collaboration with the Space Research Institute of the Austrian Academy of Science in Graz. In particular, the mole will monitor the heat flow inside the Martian surface. The precise and direct measurement of heat flow under the surface will enable the determination of the heat produced deep inside Mars.

 This will give insights into the composition of the Red Planet and its ongoing cooling process, which is related to its present volcanic activity. HP3 will also study the geological stratification of the first five metres below the Martian surface – especially the presence of ice – through the measurement of the geoelectrical properties of the ground.

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