A new mission to Mars will launch in 2016, NASA announced on Monday, a lander named InSight that will probe Mars’ interior to determine whether it has a solid or liquid core, if it actually does have fault lines and plate tectonics, and figure out the Red Planet’s basic internal structure. All of this will not only help scientists understand Mars, but also to gain insight on how terrestrial planets form and evolve.
“We’re very confident that this will produce exciting science,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate.
InSight won out for this round of NASA’s lowest cost missions, the Discovery missions, over two other very enticing proposals: the Titan Mare Explorer (TiME) would have sent a floating high-tech buoy to land in a methane sea on Saturn’s moon Titan to study its composition and its interaction with the atmosphere; and Chopper was a proposed Comet Hopper mission that would put a lander on comet 46P/Wirtanen where it would study the comet’s composition, and with thrusters it could essentially “hop” to different locations on the comet.
While all three missions in the competition were compelling, NASA only has enough money, unfortunately, for one Discovery mission in 2016. And, Grunsfeld said, InSight was the best choice of a project that could stay at or even under the Discovery program’s $425 million cost cap, excluding launch costs, and keep its tight schedule to launch in 2016.
“Our Discovery Program enables scientists to use innovative approaches to answering fundamental questions about our Solar System in the lowest cost mission category,” said Grunsfeld. “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.”
Asked during a press briefing if NASA is becoming, too Mars-centric, Grunsfeld replied, “We still have a broad portfolio of missions, with Juno recently launching, OSIRIS-Rex launching in 2016, the Dawn mission going on and New Horizons heading to Pluto, so I think we’ve shown very broad diversity in past selections.”
Grunsfeld was also asked if the Curiosity rover’s recent successful landing had any influence on the choice, but Grunsfeld said the decision was actually made before the Mars Science Laboratory rover touched down.
“We’re really clueless on the interior of Mars,” said NASA’s Planetary Science Chief, Jim Green. “And this is really our first attempt to understand what terrestrial bodies go through in their early evolution.”
Insight’s body is based on the Phoenix lander, which landed in Mars’ polar region in 2008, and will use solar panels for power instead of a radioisotope power system, which saves on costs. But the instrumentation for InSight is completely different than Phoenix, and it involves an international mix.
InSight will carry four instruments: JPL will supply a geodetic instrument to determine the planet’s rotation axis and a robotic arm and two cameras used to deploy and monitor instruments on the Martian surface. The French space agency CNES is leading an international consortium that is building an instrument to measure seismic waves traveling through the planet’s interior. The German Aerospace Center (DLR) is building a subsurface heat probe to measure the flow of heat from the interior.
And don’t expect any great color photos of Mars’ surface from InSight. It will only have a black and white context camera, and Green said they don’t expect any changes in that regard, as the mission will need to stay on budget and on time.
InSight will land in a flat, equatorial, flat region in September 2016 to begin a two-year scientific mission. “The Phoenix lander went to polar regions and we knew it was going to be a short lifetime,” said Grunsfeld. “Because InSight goes to an equatorial region where the environment is relatively more benign, it has the potential to last longer, so that is exciting.”
Green touched on other potential areas of study for InSight, such as determining if there are “Marsquakes,” and whether the landslides seen by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE camera are due to activity on the planet like quakes or from melting.
“Methane is being potentially being produced from Mars’ interior,” Green said, “and that touches upon the potential life question. But that is a potentially active process a-bioticaly, in interactions between water, minerals and magma. And this mission could determine if Mars has a hot interior magma, and why it doesn’t generate a magnetic field. What we are seeing are some of the different perspectives of Mars being an active planet or not, and these instruments will clearly be able to do this.”
Sources: NASA, press briefing