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NASA starts new robotic mission to drill into Mars

Posted: August 20, 2012

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Two weeks after the Curiosity rover descended to a rocket-assisted touchdown on Mars, NASA announced on Monday its next robot lander will launch in 2016 with a French seismometer and German drill to find out what is going beneath the red planet's dusty surface.

An artist's concept of InSight. Credit: NASA/JPL
The InSight lander will measure the Martian geologic activity, quakes, wobbles, and internal temperature, revealing data on the evolution of Mars and allowing scientists to compare its history with Earth's own geologic past.

"This is the first time we're seriously looking at the interior of Mars, and there are many science questions we are just dying to know the answers to," said John Grunsfeld, head of NASA's science mission directorate.

Scheduled for launch in March 2016, InSight will reach Mars six months later, parachute into the atmosphere and fire braking rockets before settling on the Martian surface.

InSight's cost to NASA is capped at $425 million in 2010 dollars, excluding launch services and international contributions.

The mission will reuse the design of the Phoenix lander which successfully touched down on Mars in May 2008, reducing the cost of InSight. Like Phoenix, the InSight lander will be built by Lockheed Martin Corp. in Denver.

During its two-year mission, InSight will deploy a German-built drill to bore up to 16 feet underground. A sensor package placed on the penetrator will detect the heat coming from the Martian interior, revealing information about the planet's thermal mechanics.

A seismometer provided by CNES, the French space agency, and other research institutions will record the tremble of quakes and other internal activity, giving scientists clues about the planet's structure and ongoing geologic changes.

Researchers will employ InSight's communications system for an experiment to track the wobble of the planet's rotation, and the lander will be outfitted with a robotic arm and two black-and-white cameras.

"Its purpose is to get a look deep within the Mars interior to see how it might be the same or different from Earth," said Lindley Johnson, Discovery program executive at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "We're interested in whether Mars has fault lines like the Earth does. How many Mars quakes are there? How big is the core of Mars, and does it have any semblance of a molten core like the Earth?"

NASA selected InSight as the winner in a competition for the next Discovery-class science mission, a series of cost-constrained projects tailored for exploration of the solar system.

"Our Discovery program enables scientists to use innovative approaches to answering fundamental questions about our solar system in the lowest cost mission category," Grunsfeld 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."

The space agency selected InSight over an instrumented raft designed to splash down into a hydrocarbon sea on Saturn's moon Titan and a probe aimed at visiting a comet.

Grunsfeld said the Titan and comet missions carried more cost and schedule risk than InSight, which is based on proven technology.

"Heritage is important, and the Phoenix mission does provide some of that heritage, giving us the confidence necessary for us to understand [InSight's] cost implications," said Jim Green, director of NASA's planetary science division.

NASA touts the Discovery program as accepting of more risk than the agency's costliest flagship missions, such as the $2.5 billion Curiosity rover, an SUV-sized robot with broad research objectives.

"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," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. "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."

The Discovery program is separate from NASA's dedicated line of Mars missions, which will continue with the 2013 launch of the MAVEN orbiter to study the red planet's upper atmosphere.

NASA's next step in Mars exploration beyond MAVEN and InSight is unclear.

Agency leaders chartered a panel to review possibilities for a lander or orbiter to launch in 2018 or 2020. The committee was formed after NASA pulled out of a partnership with the European Space Agency's ExoMars mission, a combined orbiter and rover project launching in 2016 and 2018.

NASA withdrew from ExoMars because its projected budget would not cover U.S. responsibilities on the mission, which included launch vehicles, descent and landing hardware, and scientific instruments.

NASA tasked the Mars program planning group with finding proposals which would merge the scientific priorities of the robotic exploration program with goals leading to human missions, including technology demonstrations such as optical communications and precision landing.

The planning committee is scheduled to brief its findings and recommendations to NASA managers later this month.