Science & Technology

To Check the Weather on Mars, Just Ask the Insight Lander

Curious if Martian dust devils are in the forecast? Scientists just activated a new weather station on the Red Planet — one located on the InSight lander sitting in Elysium Planitia. Learning about the weather will teach us a lot about Mars itself, and you can take part by checking out the data yourself on NASA's website.

Related Video: NASA's Insight Lander Recorded the Sounds of Wind on Mars

Surprise Storm Observations

InSight isn't a rover, but a stationary lander. And no, that is not the most boring idea ever — unless you count the fact that InSight will literally bore underground with a drill. But anyway. One advantage of sitting still is that scientists can get consistent weather forecasts from a single location on Mars.

This is a big deal. Mars is a huge planet, and we've only activated weather stations in a few locations, so it's hard to get a sense of the global climate. InSight's not-too-shabby contribution includes measuring temperature, wind, and air pressure with more information than any previous mission. It grabs this information from meteorological sensors called the Auxiliary Payload Subsystem (APSS).

InSight will transmit its measurements to Earth and will give another data point for scientists to consider, along with measurements they get from the moveable Curiosity rover and several orbiters that are always circling Mars.

It's already sending back surprises. InSight is embedded in the northern hemisphere during the winter, which is the "stormy season" on Mars. The lander is close to the equator, but it's picking up signs of storms taking place as far away as 60 degrees north latitude. Fluctuations in pressure at this high-altitude region affect weather all over the planet.

"We can see those waves all the way down near the equator, as the waves are big enough that they have a signature. That was a surprise," said Don Banfield, the APSS lead and an atmospheric scientist at Cornell University, in a statement from the university.

This is an illustration showing a simulated view of NASA's InSight lander about to land on the surface of Mars. This view shows the underside of the spacecraft.

Meteorology, Meet Geology and Biology

While meteorology (the study of weather) is a fun science all on its own, scientists will take the data from it and apply it to completely different fields — geology and biology.

The scientists are worried, for example, that the super-cold nights and warmer days on Mars could affect the seismometer InSight carried to Mars. Air pressure changes and wind could affect the measurements, so scientists want to keep an eye on the weather to rule out false positives — alerts of marsquakes that never actually happened.

Marsquakes are geological phenomena that have biological implications. If marsquakes are actually a thing, that's an exciting find. An active planet is a planet that could host life, either now or in the ancient past. So scientists want to be extra-sure that when they measure marsquakes, they're real marsquakes.

The weather will also help scientists learn more about dust storms, which officially ended the Opportunity mission this month after the rover fell silent during a global dust event last August. InSight could show scientists how strong the wind needs to be to heft dust from the ground to the atmosphere. This not only affects dust storms (which can sweep around the planet in the worst conditions), but also the formation of a geological feature — sand dunes.

And if you're into dust devils, InSight has you covered for that, too. The air pressure sensor is so sensitive on InSight that it can look at dust devils streaking by only hundreds of feet away. That's 10 times more sensitive than the equipment on the Viking landers of the 1970s, or the Pathfinder/Sojourner mission of the 1990s.

All this information will be super useful for two new rovers that are going to the Red Planet soon. Both NASA and the European Space Agency plan to send missions to Mars in 2020. Scientists will want those rovers to last as long as possible to get the maximum scientific return on their quest to find signs of ancient life and ancient habitable environments. So learning about the weather will provide more information to protect the rovers from the ravages of Mars — and keep up the information flow from the Red Planet.

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Admire the Red Planet in your own home with this 12-inch Mars Globe, which comes on a clear acrylic base and has clearly labeled features, including Olympus Mons, Sinus Meridiani, Syrtis Major, and many others. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Elizabeth Howell February 20, 2019

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