Yesterday, NASA announced its next mission. We’re going back to Mars in 2016 to get a look at the red planet’s internal structure with the aptly named InSight mission. The goal is for scientists to get some (pardon the pun) insight into why Mars evolved so differently from the other terrestrial planets, namely Earth.
InSight is NASA’s twelfth Discovery-class missions. The Discovery Program, which began in 1992, focuses on launching cost-capped solar system exploration missions with highly focused scientific goals. Led by W. Bruce Banerdt from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, the proposal for InSight was submitted during NASA’s last call for Discovery mission proposals in 2010; in May 2011 it became one of three finalists for funding. It beat a mission to a comet and a mission to Saturn’s moon Titan.
“Our Discovery Program enables scientists to use innovative approaches to answering fundamental questions about our solar system in the lowest cost mission category,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s headquarters. “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 proposal calls for a Phoenix-style lander sent to an equatorial region of Mars. Once on the surface, it will take instruments from its platform and place them directly on the surface for better measurements. One of its primary instruments is a drill or sorts, a few meters-long probe that will vibrate to make its way into the Martian soil.
The probe will tell scientists whether Mars has a solid core or a liquid one like Earth. Scientists have reason to believe the latter is true. NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has seen landslides on Mars. While these may be due to melting ice or earthquakes, they could also be due to a release of inorganically derived methane escaping from the planet’s molten core.
By drilling into the surface, scientists hope to learn about Mars’ crust, too. Why doesn’t the red planet have tectonic plates that drift like Earth’s, creating mountains, volcanoes, and deep trenches?
InSight will also carry a seismometer that the arm will place directly on the surface. This will be the first time seismic measurements have been made on Mars since the same instruments failed to perform on the Viking landers in 1976.
“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’s 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.”
But Curiosity’s success had nothing to do with InSight’s selection. The committee actually met and chose the mission before Curiosity landed. They didn’t want their decision to be swayed either way by this flagship mission’s success or failure.
InSight is currently set to launch in March 2016 and arrive at Mars in September. Its primary mission will last one Martian year, about 687 Earth days, in which time it’s expected to achieve its main science goals. There will be, like all missions, the chance for an extension if the spacecraft is still healthy two years after landing.
There are more review processes still to come for InSight before it moves from the planning stages to hardware development. Currently, the mission is capped at $425 million 2010 dollars (excluding the cost of the launch vehicle and associated services). At the end of next year, NASA will update the figure for inflation and other costs within reason.
Barring some huge unforeseen cost that puts the mission in jeopardy, we’ll soon be adding to our understanding of our planetary neighbour. Between Curiosity and InSight, it’s an exciting time on Mars.