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Monday, April 12, 2021

A first-of-its-kind mission to study the interior of the planet Mars is set to launch in 2016, and a UF professor is playing a critical role in the planning process.

Mark Panning, a UF assistant professor of geological sciences, is part of an international team working to make operation InSight a success.

Panning said the goal of the mission is understanding the full picture of how Mars was made.

The InSight mission, originally named GEMS, was chosen in 2011 in a competitive manner with many proposals, including a mission to a comet and another to Saturn’s moon Titan, said Guy Webster of Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

InSight stands for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport.

“Mars is still recording the processes that happened in the planetary formation that we’ve erased on Earth,” Panning said. “This is our way of understanding how planets are built, how our solar system functions,  really.”

Panning is a seismologist who said he started studying earthquakes and now wants to study quakes on other planets.

InSight will not have the capability to move across the surface of Mars. It will launch in September 2016 and remain fixed in a single location once it lands.

“For us, we don’t want a rover because we want the seismometer to sit in place, and we want to measure things really carefully from that one fixed point,” said Panning.  

The seismometer is so sensitive that Panning said it is able to measure motions comparable to the size of a hydrogen atom.

The first objective, Panning said, is to have a successful landing at a pre-determined spot on Mars’ surface then have InSight’s robotic arm insert a rod that contains the seismometer and measure lots of “Marsquakes.” This will go a long way toward learning information about the interior structure of the red planet.

Panning said shaking a jug of milk to know how much milk is left is similar to what the seismometer will do when it bounces around during a quake happening on Mars.

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It will take the lander seven months to reach Mars and seven minutes to land once the landing process begins.

The key to everything going as planned is very good software, Panning said. Scientists on Earth will be able to communicate with InSight to collect data, which is where Panning’s job comes into play.

As co-lead of what is being called the Mars Structure Service, Panning will be part of a team in Paris that will take the data from InSight and turn it into models of Martian structure.

[A version of this story ran on page 1 on 6/2/15]

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