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UK researcher to develop tiny seismometers for next unmanned Mars mission

03 September 2012

Technology for detecting 'Marsquakes' will be developed by an Imperial engineer as part of NASA’s next unmanned mission to the red planet.

An artist's impression of the Mars InSight craft (image courtesy of NASA)
An artist's impression of the Mars InSight craft (image courtesy of NASA)

Imperial College researcher, Dr Tom Pike will develop miniaturised seismometers, based on silicon-chip sensor technology, to detect Marsquakes – Martian seismic activity - on Earth’s nearest neighbour as part of the 'InSight' mission, the aim of which is to understand the formation and evolution of rocky planets by investigating the internal structure of Mars.

Dr Pike will take part in the mission to remotely explore Mars - the second mission that he has been involved in. In 2008, he developed technology for holding samples of Martian soil as part of the Mars Phoenix mission, and helped NASA to detect water, in the form of ice, just below the surface as part of the search for evidence of past or present habitability on the planet.

Dr Pike, from the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Imperial College London, says: “In some ways the Insight mission will see history repeating itself as we will be using the same spacecraft design that we used for the Phoenix mission. However, on board will be a very different payload with instruments to help us this time peer deep into the Martian interior. This could help us to understand more about the early evolution of planets like the Earth.”

The InSight mission is due to launch on March 2016 and touch down on the Mars’ equator in September that year. The Lander will be equipped with a geophysics station that will be used to carry out three experiments including one for measuring the precise rotation of Mars using the spacecraft’s onboard communications system. The team will also determine the temperature inside the planet with the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package, and measure tremors below the surface with the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) instrument package, which Dr Pike is part of an international collaboration to develop.

On Earth, scientists determine what the planet’s interior consists of by measuring how tremors or seismic waves travel through rocks following earthquakes. Seismic waves travel at differing speeds through different types of rock and scientists can measure these differences using seismometers.

Dr Pike and his colleagues aim to carry out the same measurements on Mars using the SEIS instruments, which will sit on the surface and detect seismic waves that are generated by meteorite impacts and any movements of the Martian crust. The SEIS will also measure seismic activity caused by rocks cooling inside the planet, which contract much in the same way that a radiator does when it is turned off. The data will be relayed back to the Lander and transmitted to Earth for analysis by the SEIS team. By comparing Martian and Earth seismic data, the researchers aim to build up a picture of Mars’ internal structure.

Dr Pike concludes: “After having taken the highest resolution pictures of Mars with the Phoenix microscopes in 2008, we are getting an opportunity for a second look at the planet as a whole with our miniaturised seismometers in 2016. It’s exciting to know that Imperial technology will be used once again to explore our neighbour. In 2008, we imaged individual grains of soil while in 2016 we hope to create a cross section through the planet.”

Dr Pike’s research for the Insight mission is funded by the UK Space Agency.

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