By: Mike Wall
Published: 08/20/2012 05:09 PM EDT on SPACE.com
NASA's next low-budget planetary mission will land a probe on Mars in 2016 to study why the Red Planet went down such a different evolutionary path than Earth did, the agency announced today (Aug. 20).
The new mission, called InSight, will attempt to determine whether Mars' core is liquid or solid, and why the Red Planet's crust does not appear to be composed of drifting tectonic plates like Earth's is. Such information could help scientists better understand how rocky planets form and evolve, researchers said.
"InSight will get to the 'core' of the nature of the interior and structure of Mars, well below the observations we've been able to make from orbit or the surface," John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said in a statement.
A low-cost Mars mission
InSight — short for Interior exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport — is the latest of NASA's Discovery-class missions, and its cost will be capped at $425 million in 2010 dollars (excluding the launch vehicle). [Mars InSight Lander Mission Revealed (Gallery)]
The mission will be led by Bruce Banerdt of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Insight is slated to launch in March 2016 and put a lander on Mars in September of that year to begin its two-year science mission.
The lander will carry four instruments, which will determine Mars' rotation axis and measure the seismic waves and heat flowing through and from the planet's interior. The craft will also sport a robotic arm and two cameras, researchers said.
Insight beat out two other finalists to become NASA's 12th Discovery-class mission. The other two contenders were Comet Hopper, which would have landed on a comet multiple times to study how the body changed on its trip around the sun, and the Titan Mare Explorer, or TiME.
TiME would have dropped onto the methane-ethane seas of Saturn's huge moon Titan, providing the first direct exploration of an ocean beyond Earth.
All three finalists offered great scientific potential, officials said. But InSight builds on technology used in NASA's Phoenix lander mission, which confirmed the presence of subsurface water ice near the Martian north pole in 2008.
That heritage — along with key contributions on science instruments from the French and German space agencies — helped swing the decision InSight's way, convincing NASA that the mission could stay within its relatively low budget.
"One of the major factors for both Comet Hopper and for the Titan Mare Explorer, you know, were cost risks — cost and schedule risks," Grunsfeld told reporters today.
"The InSight mission had the highest probability — by enough margin that it distinguished itself — that it could actually be accomplished under the cost constraints that we have, and on the schedule," Grunsfeld added. "I don't think I need to tell you that in the current fiscal environment that's really a very important element, all other things being equal, as they were."
Back to the Red Planet
The selection of InSight may help reaffirm NASA's dedication to Mars exploration despite recent financial troubles. The White House's proposed 2013 federal budget cuts the agency's planetary science efforts by 20 percent, with much of the funding coming out of the Mars program.
As a result, NASA dropped out of the European-led ExoMars mission — which aims to launch an orbiter and a rover to the Red Planet in 2016 and 2018, respectively — and has begun downscaling its Mars program.
"The exploration of Mars is a top priority for NASA, and the selection of InSight ensures we will continue to unlock the mysteries of the Red Planet and lay the groundwork for a future human mission there," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement.
"The recent successful landing of the Curiosity rover has galvanized public interest in space exploration, and today's announcement makes clear there are more exciting Mars missions to come," Bolden added.
- NASA Reveals Next Mars Landing Mission | Video
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'Still Life with Rover'
This full-resolution self-portrait shows the deck of NASA's Curiosity rover from the rover's Navigation camera. The back of the rover can be seen at the top left of the image, and two of the rover's right side wheels can be seen on the left. The undulating rim of Gale Crater forms the lighter color strip in the background. Bits of gravel, about 0.4 inches (1 centimeter) in size, are visible on the deck of the rover. This mosaic is made of 20 images, each of 1,024 by 1,024 pixels, taken late at night on Aug. 7 PDT (early morning Aug. 8 EDT). It uses an average of the Navcam positions to synthesize the point of view of a single camera, with a field of view of 120 degrees. Seams between the images have been minimized as much as possible. The wide field of view introduces some distortion at the edges of the mosaic. (NASA)
This image shows the landing site of NASA's Curiosity rover and destinations scientists want to investigate. Curiosity landed inside Gale Crater on Mars on Aug. 5 PDT (Aug. 6 EDT) at the green dot, within the Yellowknife quadrangle. The team has chosen for it to move toward the region marked by a blue dot that is nicknamed Glenelg. That area marks the intersection of three kinds of terrain. The science team thought the name Glenelg was appropriate because, if Curiosity traveled there, it would visit it twice -- both coming and going -- and the word Glenelg is a palindrome. Then, the rover will aim to drive to the blue spot marked "Base of Mt. Sharp", which is a natural break in the dunes that will allow Curiosity to begin scaling the lower reaches of Mount Sharp. At the base of Mt. Sharp are layered buttes and mesas that scientists hope will reveal the area's geological history. These annotations have been made on top of an image acquired by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
his image shows a closer view of the landing site of NASA's Curiosity rover and a destination nearby known as Glenelg. Curiosity landed inside Gale Crater on Mars on Aug. 5 PDT (Aug. 6 EDT) at the blue dot. It is planning on driving to an area marked with a red dot that is nicknamed Glenelg. That area marks the intersection of three kinds of terrain. Starting clockwise from the top of this image, scientists are interested in this brighter terrain because it may represent a kind of bedrock suitable for eventual drilling by Curiosity. The next terrain shows the marks of many small craters and intrigues scientists because it might represent an older or harder surface. The third, which is the kind of terrain Curiosity landed in, is interesting because scientists can try to determine if the same kind of rock texture at Goulburn, an area where blasts from the descent stage rocket engines scoured away some of the surface, also occurs at Glenelg. The science team thought the name Glenelg was appropriate because, if Curiosity traveled there, it would visit the area twice -- both coming and going -- and the word Glenelg is a palindrome. After Glenelg, the rover will aim to drive to the base of Mount Sharp. These annotations have been made on top of an image acquired by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. (NASA)
Scientists have now named the four marks near NASA's Curiosity rover where blasts from the descent stage rocket engines blew away some of the Martian surface material. Scientists have named the scour marks, clockwise from the most north: Burnside, Goulburn, Hepburn and Sleepy Dragon. These names were chosen by the science team from a list of rock formations in northern Canada because they all have something to do with heat, for example "burn" or "dragon." This cropped image is part of a larger panorama from Curiosity's Mast Camera (see pia16051).
Goulburn Scour Mark
This cropped image from NASA's Curiosity rover shows one set of marks on the surface of Mars where blasts from the descent-stage rocket engines blew away some of the surface material. This particular scour mark is near the rear left wheel of the rover and is the left-most scour mark on the left side of this larger panorama from Curiosity's Mast Camera (see PIA16051). This scour mark is named Goulburn after a 2-billion year-old sequence of rocks in northern Canada.
This image (cut out from a mosaic) shows the view from the landing site of NASA's Curiosity rover toward the lower reaches of Mount Sharp, where Curiosity is likely to begin its ascent through hundreds of feet (meters) of layered deposits. The lower several hundred feet (meters) show evidence of bearing hydrated minerals, based on orbiter observations. The terrain Curiosity will explore is marked by hills, buttes, mesas and canyons on the scale of one-to-three story buildings, very much like the Four Corners region of the western United States. A scale bar indicates a distance of 1.2 miles (2 kilometers). Curiosity's 34-millimeter Mast Camera acquired this high-resolution image on Aug. 8, 2012 PDT (Aug. 9 EDT). This image shows the colors modified as if the scene were transported to Earth and illuminated by terrestrial sunlight. This processing, called "white balancing," is useful to scientists for recognizing and distinguishing rocks by color in more familiar lighting. (NASA)
This image shows the calibration target for the Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument on NASA's Curiosity rover. The calibration target is one square and a group of nine circles that look dark in the black-and-white image. The calibration target set can be seen in the middle left in this image, to the right of the rover's power source. The materials used in these circles are the types of materials scientists anticipated they might encounter on Mars. The square is a titanium alloy with a painted edge. The ChemCam instrument will be firing a series of powerful, but invisible, laser pulses at a target rock or soil. It is located on the rover's mast, near the Navigation camera that took this image. A telescopic camera known as the remote micro-imager will show the context of the spots hit with the laser. This image was taken by the right-side Navigation camera on Aug. 16, 2012. (NASA)
Curiosity's First Rock Star
This mosaic image shows the first target NASA's Curiosity rover aims to zap with its Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument. ChemCam will be firing a laser at this rock, provisionally named N165, and analyzing the glowing, ionized gas, called plasma, that the laser excites. The instrument will analyze that spark with a telescope and identify the chemical elements in the target. The rock is just off to the right of the rover. This image is part of a set of images obtained by Curiosity's Mast Camera on Aug. 8 PDT (Aug. 9 EDT). See PIA16051 for the larger mosaic. (NASA)
Head of Mast on Mars Rover Curiosity
This view of the head of the remote sensing mast on the Mars Science Laboratory mission's rover, Curiosity, shows seven of the 17 cameras on the rover. Two pairs of Navigation cameras (Navcams), among the rover's 12 engineering cameras, are the small circular apertures on either side of the head. On the top are the optics of the Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) investigation, which includes a laser and a telescopic camera. The Mast Camera (MastCam) instrument includes a 100-millimeter-focal-length camera called MastCam-100 or M-100, and a 34-millimeter-focal-length camera called the MastCam-34 or M-34. The two cameras of the MastCam are both scientific and natural color imaging systems. The M-100 looks through a 1.2-inch (3-centimeter) baffle aperture, and the M-34 looks through a 2.1-inch (5.3-centimete) baffle aperture. (NASA)
Curiosity's First Rock Star, Up-Close
This close-up image shows the first target NASA's Curiosity rover aims to zap with its Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument. ChemCam will be firing a laser at this rock, provisionally named N165, and analyzing the glowing, ionized gas, called plasma, that the laser excites. The instrument will analyze that spark with a telescope and identify the chemical elements in the target. The rock is just off to the right of the rover. This image is part of a set of images obtained by Curiosity's Mast Camera on Aug. 8 PDT (Aug. 9 EDT). See pia16051 for the larger mosaic.