Rumblings deep down in Mars

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Conceptual image of InSight Lander drilling beneath the surface of Mars. Credit:

Conceptual image of InSight Lander drilling beneath the surface of Mars. Credit: NASA

On 5 May the lander ’InSight’ will commence its journey to Mars from California. Its aim is to gather data to enable a better understanding of the formation and evolution of the Red Planet. One of the key instruments on the NASA mission is a seismometer, which was developed and built under the lead of France together with Germany, Switzerland, the UK and the USA. Thanks to the knowledge, expertise and experience of geophysicists and engineers from the ETH Zurich, working with private industry, that has flowed into the electronic brain of the seismometer, Swit-zerland is once again part of a space mission from which ground-breaking results are expected.

If all goes to plan, the rocket carrying the Mars lander ’InSight’ (Interior Exploration using Seismic In-vestigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) will blast off from its launch site in California on 5 May, shortly after 1pm Swiss time. ’InSight’ will probe and take readings on Mars using various scientific instruments. Numerous important elements of this scientific mission come from Europe, such as a heat probe contributed by Germany. The ’Seismic Experiment for Interior Structures’ (SEIS) is also a European product: led by the Paris Institute of Earth Physics, a seismometer was developed which can withstand the voyage through space, the landing on Mars and the planet’s weather, to measure the frequency, origin and seismic waves of marsquakes. Along with US components, in particular the ’Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment’, scientists hope to gain a better understanding of the Red Planet’s structure and produce new findings to confirm or disprove existing theories about the for-mation of planets. Switzerland’s contribution to ’InSight’ was developed under the lead of the ETH Zurich (Earth Sciences Department) together with the electronics company SYDERAL SA (Gals, BE) as its industrial partner. The element in question is the Seisometer Electronic Box (SEIS E-Box), the power supply and control unit, which supplies the sensors with power, receives their measurement data, temporarily stores them, processes them and holds them for transmission to the ground station. While the project will be concluded for SYDERAL once the launch vehicle has taken off, the highpoint of the adventure for the team from the ETHZ will be when SEIS begins operating on the planet’s sur-face. With its collective knowledge of earthquake research, which flowed into the design of the SEIS E-Box and the signal conditioning and calibration that takes place there, the team from the ETHZ will continue to play a key role in the mission. Although several attempts to land a seismometer on Mars have failed, there are justified grounds to hope that a significant step forward can be made in re-search on the theory of planet formation thanks to InSight and SEIS. In contrast to France, Germany, Italy and the UK, Switzerland does not have a national space agency. As a small country, it is not practicable to operate a national space programme. However, in order to be able to play a part in space activities, Switzerland’s approach is to take part in cooperation efforts and tap the specific expertise and experience of the European Space Agency ESA. It is in that way that Switzerland’s contribution to InSight was financed and carried out as part of ESA’s Programme de Développement d’Expériences scientifiques (PRODEX). With this support, Swiss scientists can pursue the development of highly complex instruments and continue to be at the forefront of international scientific space missions. For its part, Swiss industry can build on and hone its skills through new challenges. This can also result in innovations that can later be placed successfully on the market even beyond the space industry.