2 Colorado School of Mines scientists helping with Mars InSight lander

GOLDEN, Colo. – From science museums to the big screens at Times Square, NASA’s latest Mars landing captivated the country Monday afternoon.

As the InSight spacecraft touched down on the Martian surface, cheers erupted from inside Mission Control. The same thing happened in a tiny corner of Golden.

“It was when it got down to about 80 meters that my heart started going faster and faster,” Paul Morgan said.

Morgan is the senior geothermal geologist at the Colorado Geological Survey at Colorado School of Mines. He helped design one of the instruments that will be used for experiments on the lander.

“It was obvious that it was going to land safely but I must confess that I really started getting excited,” he told FOX31. “At the moment I’m just feeling a great feeling of relief.”

Morgan began designing the probe in 2003. At the time, he says he did not know that it would ever fly on a mission.

“There are probably 20 instruments developed for every one that flies on a mission,” he said.

Outside of planned missions, NASA welcomes ideas for new missions from anyone.

“This was an open competition and we are very fortunate in that we won the competition and it became a mission,” Morgan said.

The instrument he helped design is called the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Probe, better known as HP3. It includes a self-hammering nail about a foot long and an inch in diameter that will penetrate Mars’ surface and collect temperature readings, as well as a tether that will also measure the temperature of the Martian soil.

“This is the first mission that’s actually studying the interior of Mars,” Morgan said.

In addition to HP3, InSight will test the wobble of the planet. The third experiment will use a seismometer to do 3D seismic wave simulations of Mars.

“It’s predicted there will be marsquakes. We actually call them earthquakes. We talk about marsquakes just so people know they’re on Mars,” Morgan said.

Ebru Bozdag, assistant professor of geophysics at Colorado School of Mines is on seismometer team and will help conduct the experiments from Earth. A Schools of Mines graduate student will work full time on Mars simulations and data related to the seismic activity.

The hope is to get enough data to learn more about the planet’s core and what else could be inside of the planet, including water. In return, the team believes they will be able to use the information obtained from Mars to learn more about Earth.

“We’re interested in the evolution of the Earth, to go back in time so that we can go forward in time and actually understand more about what Earth is doing at the moment,” Morgan said.

According to Morgan, InSight will spend the next several days taking highly detailed photographs of the landing area. NASA will use the images to determine two flat areas within five feet of the lander to place the instruments.

The lander’s arm may need to clear smaller rocks from the area. It will not be able to move large rocks. If the area is too rocky, the mission may need to be scrubbed. Morgan thinks that is a longshot.

“They’ve been calling this the parking lot of Mars. It’s the most boring area that we could find close to the equator,” he said.

The experiments are scheduled to begin in January. As long as everything works properly, InSight will take measurements for one Mars year, which is about 687 Earth days.

“I’m just waiting for the data to come back. That’s what I’m really looking forward to,” Morgan said.

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