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.