release the mole

Berlin’s InSight contribution

Interview with Dr. Ana-Catalina Plesa, German Aerospace Center, Institute of Planetary Research, Berlin

A planet’s deep interior holds the secrets to its past and present. The interior heat engine drives the processes that shape the variations in the landscape’s elevation. Moreover, it is one of the major contributors to a planet’s atmosphere, it determines surface rock composition, water and ice abundance, and is a planet’s magnetic field source. Basically, it is the interior that provides most of the conditions that determine a world’s ability to harbor life.

In recent history, our efforts to explore the Red Planet have been frequent. These missions have always dominated the media. However, scientists today are particularly excited about their most recent mission, InSight, primarily because of the implications the data will have in the context of our solar system. This NASA based mission made touchdown on November 28th 2018 on the Elysium Planitia plain. Following a brief test phase, experiments are scheduled to commence after the 2018/2019 turn of the year.

Mars sphere, Germany Aerospace Center, Institute of Planetary Research, Berlin

Although InSight is a NASA based mission, the project involves a high level of international collaboration. Amongst the many institutions involved, one of the main contributors is The German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt, DLR). Specifically, DLR’s InSight contribution has been through the development of the HP3 heat flow probe (see diagram above for details). The probe is designed to measure the planet’s geothermal gradient by drilling a small penetrometer, nicknamed “The Mole”, 5 meters into the ground.

Here to tell us more about InSight and HP3 is DLR investigator, Dr. Ana-Catalina Plesa. An ardent Star Trek fan and a Martian at heart, Dr. Plesa studied computer science and geophysics for her master’s degree in Passau (south of Germany). Later on, through her fascination of planetary exploration, she decided to earn her Ph.D. in Planetary Science. Now a co-investigator of the InSight team, Dr. Plesa’s contributions to the mission will be essential for its scientific success.

INTERVIEW Teaser, full article in PLASMA magazine 5, release in May 2019

PLASMA: What is the current scientific culture like in Berlin and how has that influenced you personally and as a scientist?
Dr. Plesa: Berlin is such an intercultural city, even at the scientific level. When I first came here to start my Ph.D. in 2008, the project I was involved in – called the “planetary evolution of life” – was large and collaborative. It gave me the opportunity to meet people from many different research areas. In Berlin, this is fortunately a very common scenario due to the city’s high number of research institutions and universities, all of which encourage and engage in collaborative initiatives. You get to work on a problem with different researchers from different areas to analyze problems from different angles. All of this creates a platform, especially for young people, that supports creativity and enables the easy exchange of ideas. This, I think, is very important for research because teamwork always takes you further than work on your own.

Dr. Ana-Catalina Plesa, Germany Aerospace Center, Institute of Planetary Research, Berlin

PLASMA: Is this your first Mars project? How does your area of expertise in computer science and planetary geophysics come into play in terms of the NASA InSight mission? What is your main personal interest in InSight?
Dr. Plesa: Yes, this is the first Mars mission in which I’ve actively participated. Although during my Ph.D. I had already done some work related to the Martian system.
My area of research focuses on developing computational models of the interior of terrestrial planets. Developing these models is of great importance as they show the planet’s inner evolution and consequently how this shapes the planet’s surface over time. What makes InSight so special is that it will provide us with data anchor points on seismic events, heat flow values, and degrees of axis rotation that will either challenge or validate our current models.

PLASMA: What’s in store for you in terms of future projects and collaborations? Do you get to decide what missions you will work on next or will you get assigned to a particular mission?
Dr. Plesa: It really depends on what missions are currently at their starting stages and whether the type of modeling work that we do is compatible with their research goals. At the moment there are proposals to go to Venus and these align nicely with our line of scientific inquiry. Luckily for me, I have received funding to start my own research group to focus on Mars and Venus.
The models I use can be applied to different systems, which allows you to compare and contrast different planets. This is why I’m really looking forward to the Venus mission in the coming years. We will again be able to create models supported by our scientific measurements. Taking from the knowledge we will have acquired from the InSight Mars mission, we will be able to perform comparative planetology between these two planets, Earth, and even exoplanets!

PLASMA: One last question. You’re a big Star Trek fan. Do you think the show or science fiction in general influenced you to become a scientist?
Dr. Plesa: Oh yeah! I started watching Star Trek with my brother and mum way back when I was a kid. This was the case for most of my colleagues too! That’s definitely something you remember when you do science. Somehow, it channels your attention to specific topics.

Read the full article in PLASMA magazine 5, release in May 2019


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