(CNN) — By tracking the gravitational pull on spacecraft over Mars, NASA has created one of the most detailed maps yet of the Red Planet’s surface, and what lies beneath.
“Gravity maps allow us to see inside a planet, just as a doctor uses an X-ray to see inside a patient,” Antonio Genova of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) said in a statement.
“The new gravity map will be helpful for future Mars exploration, because better knowledge of the planet’s gravity anomalies helps mission controllers insert spacecraft more precisely into orbit about Mars.”
As well as providing insight for future missions, the gravity map also offers explanations for developments in the planet’s past.
“The better resolution of the new map helps interpret how the crust of the planet changed over Mars’ history in many regions,” Genova said.
Mission to Mars
Interest in the Red Planet is at its highest point in years, with the spectacular success of “The Martian” movie (which was made with NASA cooperation) and the launch of the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter this month.
The ExoMars will seek evidence of methane and other atmospheric gases that could mean there is active biological life on Mars.
Hopes of finding life on the planet were improved substantially last year, when NASA announced the discovery of liquid water on Mars.
“The existence of liquid water, even if it is super salty briny water, gives the possibility that if there’s life on Mars, that we have a way to describe how it might survive,” John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA, said at the time.
While current explorations of Mars have been robot and satellite driven, NASA hopes to launch a manned mission to the planet in the near future.
“We are further down the path to sending humans to Mars than at any point in NASA’s history,” Charles Boden, administrator of the space agency, said in a speech in October last year.
“We have a lot of work to do to get humans to Mars, but we’ll get there.”
In the short term, this will focus on the development of the Orion capsule and Space Launch System (SLS) megarocket, designed to transport astronauts to deep space destinations. An unmanned test flight of the two components is planned for 2018.
Astronaut Scott Kelly, who recently returned to Earth after almost a year in space, was also a key experiment in the viability of future Mars trips. Kelly’s extended stay on the International Space Station was designed to test the psychological and physical effects of long-term space travel, as would be required by any journey to Mars.
“If we go to Mars and we land on Mars and we stay on Mars, we can experience Martian gravity and don’t have an ultra-long time in microgravity, which I think is helpful,” Kelly told CNN’s Sanjay Gupta this month.
“I think where we run into issues is flying around Mars and coming back, because then you have guys in space for a year and a half. I wouldn’t say you can’t but I would say that’s pretty significant based on my experience.”