NASAs Proposed ‘InSight’ Lander would Peer to the Center of Mars in 2016


A Phoenix-like lander that would mine the deepest hole yet into Mars– to a depth of 5 meters – and unveil the nature of the mysterious deep interior and central core of the Red Planet is under consideration by NASA for a 2016 launch and sports a nifty new name – InSight.

The stationary “InSight” lander would be an international science mission and a near duplicate of NASA’s proven Phoenix spacecraft, Bruce Banerdt told Universe Today. Banerdt is the Principal Investigator of the proposed InSight mission.

“InSight is essentially built from scratch, but nearly build-to-print from the Phoenix design,” Banerdt, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena , Calif, told me. The team can keep costs down by re-using the blueprints pioneered by Phoenix instead of creating an entirely new spacecraft.

“The robotic arm is similar (but not identical) to the Phoenix arm.”

Mars Interior
Insight’s goal is to investigate and deduce the nature of the interior of the Red Planet. Credit: JPL/NASA

However, the landing site and science goals for InSight are quite different from Phoenix.

InSight will have an entirely new suite of three science instruments, including two from Europe, designed to peer to the center of Mars and detect the fingerprints of the processes by which the terrestrial planets formed. It will determine if there is any seismic activity, the amount of heat flow from the interior, the size of Mars core and whether the core is liquid or solid.

NASA’s twin GRAIL lunar gravity probes are set to begin their own investigation into the interior and core of Earth’s Moon in early March 2012, and several science team members are common to GRAIL and InSight.

“The seismometer (SEIS, stands for Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure) is from France (built by CNES and IPGP) and the heat flow probe (HP3, stands for Heat flow and Physical Properties Probe) is from Germany (built by DLR),” Banerdt explained.

Phoenix successfully landed in the frigid northern polar regions of Mars in 2008 in search of potential habitats for life and quickly discovered water ice and salty soils that could be favorable for the genesis and support of extraterrestrial life.

3 Footpads of Phoenix Mars Lander atop Martian Ice
Phoenix thrusters blasted away Martian soil and exposed water ice. Proposed Mars InSight mission will build a new Phoenix-like lander from scratch to peer deep into the Red Planet and investigate the nature and size of the mysterious Martian core. Credit: Kenneth Kremer, Marco Di Lorenzo, Phoenix Mission, NASA/JPL/UA/Max Planck Institute

InSight will intentionally land in a far warmer and sunnier location nearer the moderate climate of the equator to enable a projected lifetime of 2 years (or 1 Mars year) vs. the 5 months survival of Phoenix extremely harsh arctic touchdown zone.

“Our planned landing site is in Elysium Planitia,” Banerdt told me. “It was chosen for optimizing engineering safety margins for landing and power.”

The more equatorial landing site affords far more sun for the life giving solar arrays to power the instruments and electronics.

“We have global objectives and can do our science anywhere on the planet.”

Elysium Planitia is not too far from the landing sites of the Spirit and Curiosity rovers. The Elysium Mons volcano is also in the general area, but it’s a long way from precise site selection.

InSight is a geophysical lander targeted to delve deep beneath the surface into the Martian interior, check its “vital signs”; like “pulse” though seismology, “temperature”, though a heat flow probe, and “reflexes”, through precision tracking.

The purpose is to answer one of science’s most fundamental questions: How were the planets created?

InSight will accomplish much of its science investigations through experiments sitting directly in contact with the Martian surface. The robotic arm will pluck two of the instruments from the lander deck and place them onto Mars.

“The arm will pick the SEIS seismometer and HP3 heat flow probe off the deck and place each on the ground next to the lander. The arm doesn’t have a drill, but the heat flow probe itself will burrow down as deep as 5 meters,” Banerdt elaborated.

The third experiment named RISE (Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment) is to be provided by JPL and will use the spacecraft communication system to provide precise measurements of Mars planetary rotation and elucidate clues to its interior structure and composition.

Right now on Mars, NASA’s Opportunity rover is conducting a Doppler radio tracking experiment similar to what is planned for RISE, but InSight will have a big advantage according to Banerdt.

“The RISE experiment will be very similar to what we are doing right now on Opportunity, but will be able to do much better, said Banerdt. “The differences are that we will get more tracking every week (Opportunity is power-limited during the winter months; that’s why she is currently stationary!) and will make measurements for an entire Mars year – we will likely only get a handful of months from Opportunity.”

Insight will also be equipped with 2 cameras and make some weather measurements.

“We have a camera on the arm and one fixed to the deck, both primarily to support placing the instruments on the surface, although they will be able to scan the landscape around the spacecraft. Both are Black & White,” Banerdt told me.

“We will measure pressure, temperature and wind, mostly to support noise analysis on the seismic data, but will also supply information on the weather.”

Mars has the same basic internal structure as the Earth and other terrestrial (rocky) planets. It is large enough to have pressures equivalent to those throughout the Earth's upper mantle, and it has a core with a similar fraction of its mass. In contrast, the pressure even near the center of the Moon barely reach that just below the Earth's crust and it has a tiny, almost negligible core. The size of Mars indicates that it must have undergone many of the same separation and crystallization processes that formed the Earth's crust and core during early planetary formation. Credit: JPL/NASA

InSight is one of three missions vying to be selected for flight in NASA’s Discovery Program, a series of low cost NASA missions to understand the solar system by exploring planets, moons, and small bodies such as comets and asteroids. All three mission teams are required to submit concept study reports to NASA on March 19.

Banerdt’s team is working hard to finalize the concept study report.

“It describes the mission design as we have refined it over the past 9 months since the NASA Step-1 selection.”

So there is no guarantee that InSight will fly. Because of severe budget cuts to NASA’s Planetary Science Division, NASA had to cancel its scheduled participation in two other Mars missions dubbed ExoMars and jointed planned with ESA, the European Space Agency, for launch in 2016 and 2018.

44 Replies to “NASAs Proposed ‘InSight’ Lander would Peer to the Center of Mars in 2016”

  1. NASA just doesn’t get it.

    – Solving the economic woes is paramount for the US economy, especially reducing eliminating Government debt. (NASA Step 0)
    – Dreaming is fine, but you have to have money in the bank.
    – NASA, here seems to be determined to undermine the American Government (Should they be punished?)
    – Mars will have to wait just a little while longer. It isn’t going anywhere soon, now is it?

      1. Yeah, and least they are realistic in their goals…

        Such blatant nationalism on such a subject like this is absolutely pathetic!!

        Freaking Americans nitwits get you into this mess and instead you bleat that someone else may be equal or better this your own delusional paradigms.

        With such a stinking attitude, I’d say let them have it!

        A typical pathetic comment, IMO! Boo! 🙁

      2. Unlike most government programs, NASA has a net positive effect on the US economy and, ultimately, on revenue flow for the government. IE, NASA creates enough economic activity that the government ends up collecting more money in taxes from NASA’s activity than it spends on NASA.

        So saying “the US can’t afford NASA” is like saying “the US can’t afford to put money in a near-guaranteed high return investment fund!” That’s just silly.

        Could NASA be run more efficiently? Absolutely, and it should be. Is the US government losing money on NASA even at its current low level of fiscal competence? No.

      3. I said absolutely nothing at all about what you write here. Who here said “the US can’t afford NASA”? I didn’t!

        Also the delusion in your analogy that the US has monies to put in an investment fund. Don’t you realise you almost don’t you even have the monies to pay the interest on those debts!

        Get this. America could do what it likes if the country had its OWN money in the bank. [Most of the Federal deficit now owes monies to China!]

        THAT’s what is silly!

      4. First: I’m not American. You didn’t say it directly, but you implied that I was. Be careful when making such assumptions;).

        Second: the US, as it currently stands, in its crappy debt-ridden situation, can afford to take on approximately 12 trillion more in federal debt before it gets into serious trouble. The issue with the US right now isn’t that it has too much debt, but that it doesn’t have a high enough tax rate to pay for the services that the US population demands.

        So the US has one of two choices: raise taxes (slightly, believe it or not), or cut services. Unfortunately the current crop of elected officials are unwilling to make either of those choices, for fear that it will affect their re-election chances.

        Third: You did indeed imply that the US can’t afford NASA. Over and over again. You did it again in the very post where you said you didn’t say it:P.

        Fourth: Yes, the US is borrowing money. But here’s the kicker: as an example, if you borrow money at a 10% interest rate, and you invest that money and make 15% interest, you’re coming out ahead in the end. You’re making enough money off your investment to pay both the interest of your loan and some of the principle as well.

        That’s basic, solid financial planning, and it’s the reason why NASA is a good investment for the US people.

      5. “First: I’m not American. You didn’t say it directly, but you implied that I was. Be careful when making such assumptions;).”

        I never said you were, but I reedited the last post so it is implicit.

      6. Perhaps if you and others like you were American, the US wouldn’t be in quite the mess we’re in. I’d wager less than 20% of the populace of America have the level of understanding of the US budget situation that you possess.

      7. Aw please. National jingoism nor ignorance is no excuse.

        American economic woes are caused by the excess of America. You want Wall Street as the centre of the world economy yet you won’t take the responsibility of its actions. Even about 60% of the global currency reserves has been invested in the US dollar.

        The rest of the world had little to do with its deep or “Great Recession.” We had little to do with the recent excesses of Wall Street, banking liquidity problems, shattering of the housing bubble, failed high risk investment, failure to disclose loans, etc.

        The gross failure is America’s, not elsewhere.

        NASA has to face that reality and not wave dreams of what could of been or might be.

        It is this simple. Fix the economy, and America can do what it wishes!

      8. Actually, and factually, China only owns about 8% of the current US debt. Check your facts before commenting.

      9. I say China in my response here, because Tony Power said “Yeh, let Russia and China control the Moon and then Mars.”

        My response was with Tony’s apparent American-centric arrogance, especially when it has monies owed to China to help America get out of jail.

        Please check the earlier responses before berating others for their comments! Thanks.

        An independent view of America debt is here;

        The numbers here are just mind-blowing. I should point out, China is top of the list!

    1. NASA is too small to affect US economy or debt, neither of which they caused.

      And since science gives good ROI, it is paramount to solving both to keep investing as much as you can afford.

      The economy crisis was mostly caused by the private sector as I remember it. But maybe US regulation could be better guarded against speculation.

      The debt is totally US voters doing, how could it not be? If they accepted to shoulder their responsibility to a comparable degree as in most other nations, i.e. pay the taxes for the services they ask for, there would be a comparable degree of manageable debt.

      I don’t really know why NASA keeps getting into that discussion. On the other hand they are constantly seriously underestimating the cost of huge projects, so they don’t shoulder their responsibility any better than US citizens criticizing them.

      That is a systemic error caused by the way NASA is financed. They even know better, see the Augustine report, but choose to follow the path that leads to deficit anyway because it gives _them_ better ROI for the bucks they got. (And even more bucks in most cases. Sigh.)

      Maybe one could compare with ESA and JAXA, both of which does better I think. But if one compares with the SSC (um, was it the “Super Sized Collider”? can’t remember), they do as well as other US organizations on multi-billion projects.

      1. The space agency is part of the government, because it relies (mostly) on the Federal handouts via taxes. NASA workings abide by the directives of the executive government, who can promote, admonish, or end programs or activities.

        NASA isn’t the problem, it is the American government, and ultimately the American people, who must stop the excesses of spending monies that they don’t have.

        If you default on your loans, your creditors will soon be knocking, and you might find the cost of extravagances will vaporise every program all at once.

        Clearly ‘frugal’ or ‘thrifty’ are words that needs to be placed in the American dictionary!

    2. No No No.

      Please don’t take this comment so darn seriously.

      I only said this in the view that in the US, the economy is paramount. Yet like any government agency, they promote only their perspective.

      Exploring and eventually going to Mars is a good / great idea, but at the moment it is not sustainable unless the economy is corrected. Again the comments here fail to see how close the tipping point of the US economy is to not currently unsustainable!!!!

      All agencies need to rethink their own goals and needs, and make priorities

      Pretending everything is moving along without considering the looming economic disaster or that a crisis actually exists is, frankly, delusional!


    3. Apparently you are unaware that the Nasa budget is one half of one percent of the total national budget. The national debt is indeed a paramount issue but don’t you agree that a more comprehensive look at where the BIG money is being spent should be examind before taking an ax to a program.

      1. Indeed. I work in a restaurant, and my boss is… afflicted with this type of stupid reasoning. He wants to cut food costs, so he yells at the servers for giving to much gravy (which costs us less than 2 cents per bowl, and sells for a dollar per bowl). In the same breath he’ll admonish them for not giving enough guacamole (which we sell at a loss). He’s a moron, and would fit right in with the current batch of US congresscritters:P.

      2. Oh dear, same old broken record playing the same old tune.

        Budget cuts need to be everywhere and placed on a solid foundation to reduce the debt. A little bit from everywhere contributes to solve the ‘paramount issue’ of the national debt’!

        No one (including me) is saying to kill NASA or kill all of its programs, nor even eliminate other active programs. (If everything currently was to continue, there is enough to keep the exploration and the invention going for 15 to 20 years!) In fact, the budget just pulled back a little, requesting no additional non-essential advances be made for the near future.

        The secret is restraint until the economy is fixed or it is at least under some control. Once done, then is the time to prioritise spending to new programs.

        I’ve said nothing different.

      3. Not wasting money on firing a few missiles by the US military would pay for NASA’s budget easily.

      4. Not wasting money on firing a few missiles by the US military would pay for NASA’s budget easily.

    4. How about retracting American military installations from Spain, Germany, UK, Italy, Bulgaria etc etc etc.?

      Look at this map, do you see anything wrong with this picture?

      Billions of dollars are being wasted through maintenance costs of keeping bases alive in these countries. For what? Are we expecting Hitler to rise from the dead and try to take over Europe again?

      People keep complaining about how we shouldn’t spend money on space because there are so many problems on Earth, but the fact is that we spend relatively little on space, and the ROI on sci/tech research (be it any civil science field) is far greater than fighting massive (and sometimes illegal) wars on the American credit card. But thanks to the well established and powerful industrial-military complex, this trend isn’t going to change anytime soon.

      Can you imagine what fantastic things NASA can accomplish if you just give them maybe $10 billion more?

      1. I said; “No one (including me) is saying to kill NASA or kill all of its programs, nor even eliminate other active programs.”

        Also the American economy is hooked up to many others in the western world. It falters, and the rest will follows. Stupid nationalism or patriotism makes little difference in a presumed free world trading economy!

        Imagine if American had save some of its money for these programs instead of put itself on the precipice of economic ruin.

        Reading this it is clear you just don’t get it!

      2. But I didn’t say that you said to kill NASA, I’m not sure where you got that from?

        My sole point is that spending priorities in America are misaligned. That is all. It’s nothing too complex to understand.

      1. Thanks. A good perspective, though it is still highly dubious in light of the degree of cuts so far being made.

        Considering problems facing quarter million “Homelessness in Los Angeles County” like ; . American society has more difficult problems to solve.

  2. Sometimes the best scientific options don’t produce the most inspiring mission profiles. However I think it is a sensible approach to a very poorly understood (and potentially important) problem, and given the extensive re-use of technology, probably provides more bang for the buck than most proposals. The drill actually looks pretty nifty, are new drilling segments loaded by the arm? I understand why they might make the decision that from the scientific perspective black and white cameras are best, but in this era of cell phone video cameras, it would be moronic not to include at least one little non-mission critical color camera.

    1. I had the same concern with cameras and PR, but is apparently undesired by the team. Black&white cameras are probably cheaper, uses less bandwidth, gives a nice MarsNoir feel… etc. I suppose the heat-flow probe burrows itself. That would be great for drilling for potential microbes underground. Though, I wonder if InSight could indirectly lay, um, insight to whether trace methane is from geological or biological origin?

      1. ExoMars it isn’t; it looks like the drill probably just contains temperature probes to see if it can pick up on a temperature differential across its length.

    2. With a B&W camera you can provide many more colour filters that filter out specific wavelengths. So you are not limited to only 3 colors.

      It would be nice though that they could recode a movie at 25 fps, and thus be able to capture how dust moves.

      1. I had assumed that when he specified black and white, he meant black and white without filters, like the MER navcams. But I could be wrong. You bring up a good point though, all they need to do is attach a filter wheel to one of the cameras. All the more reason to do it!

    3. With a B&W camera you can provide many more colour filters that filter out specific wavelengths. So you are not limited to only 3 colors.

      It would be nice though that they could recode a movie at 25 fps, and thus be able to capture how dust moves.

  3. Seems loosing a stationary Spirit was more of a loss than Curiosity can make up for. Too bad.

    1. 2 out of 3 instruments are European, and this mission was planned way before Exomars was imploding.

    2. There is also likely more than a slight difference in cost. I do wish they had the money to fund both!

    3. Europe hasn’t been “screwed over” by NASA just because they pulled out of ExoMars. ExoMars is still going ahead, just without the US involved.

  4. This sounds like a good plan, does anyone know what the other two missions that are vying for this funding are?

    1. One is a buoy probe, designed to splash down and study a vast lake (and shoreline) on Saturn’s moon, Titan. The other is a comet hopper. These missions sound great, but they have down-sides. In my opinion, the Comet hopper seems to be a duplicate of another comet mission called Rosetta, already en route. The Titan Mare Explorer, 3 years after splashing-down on 2023, will no longer be in line of sight for transmissions from 2026 to 2035. 3 years is still a very long time compared to Huygens, but it would benefit from a orbiting relay. Both spacecraft would be powered by an “Advanced Stirling Radioisotope Generator” which would produce more power with less Plutonium. It would enable a lot of future missions, but it ever flown before.

      It seems InSight is the most conservative, and perhaps most feasible with the money involved. Besides, it would land on Mars on September 2016, while the other two won’t start their science return ’till the 2020’s. My main concern is the payload, the deck looks pretty lonely compared to Phoenix. I feel it could use at least a sampling experiment with its deep drill, but it would deviate with the mission’s overall theme, but that’s my itch. (That said, I find the Titan mission the most exciting.)

      1. I agree, InSight does seem like the most feasible/convenient one given the prior experience with Phoenix. But like you, I would probably pick the Titan Mare Explorer.

        As far as costs go I think that they would all receive similar if not the same level of funding since they are competing ideas within one category of mission types.

        Maybe a comparison of all three ideas and a discussion of scientific value from each mission would make a good article for someone on UT to write up.

  5. Article: “Nasa is thinking of doing a thing!”
    Commenter: “What! How dare Nasa spend precious, precious money on doing things!”

    *tedious debate on the economic merits of Nasa ensues, and the thing that Nasa is thinking of doing is ignored completely*

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