Mars Lander Wins Out for 2016 Mission Over Titan Boat and Comet Hopper

Article written: 21 Aug , 2012
Updated: 23 Dec , 2015
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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

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20 Responses

  1. Dampe says

    As much as I love Mars, Titan really needs a look at.

    • Torbjörn Larsson says

      Row, row, row your boat
      Gently in the stream,
      Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily
      Life finding is our dream

      Row, row, row your boat
      Gently cross the sea,
      If you see a little breath
      Probe it for its lighter C

      Row, row, row your boat
      Gently round the soup,
      If you catch a little cell
      Put it in your scoop

      Row, row, row your boat
      See the water run,
      Rowing here and rowing there
      Oh we’re almost done

      Row, row, row your boat
      Gently in the stream,
      Merrily merrily, merrily, merrily
      Life finding is our dream

      • Hans Peter Uhrig says

        Nice poem – really romantic! 🙂

        Lets take it this way: we had our one and only or should I say once in a lifetime extraterrestrial life detection mission (Mars/Viking) and know that there is life out there.

        Iam sure the details will be explored by one of the next generations.

    • HeadAroundU says

      I’d say that Europa and Enceladus too and let’s not forget Uranus and Neptune.

      This mission however seems to be sane. If we dominate Mars, why not continue? Is there a problem being Mars centric?

    • HeadAroundU says

      I’d say that Europa and Enceladus too and let’s not forget about Uran*s and Neptune.

      This seems to be a sane mission. If we dominate Mars, why not continue? Is it a problem being Mars centric?

  2. It was a wise choice. The comet-hopper essentially duplicates Rosetta, already en route. Though TiME could have been the first, extra-maritime buoy, like Chopper, it relied on Sterling radio-isotope generators. This technology can open the outer solar system with a meager amount of plutonium, but without a track-record in space; it’s a no go.

    We know almost nothing about the interior of Mars. That’s why InSight was chosen. How did the planet evolve? How did it geologically die? Is really dead? Could any found activity imply a possible energy source for life on Mars? Whatever the results, the data will be InSightful.
    My only criticism is the lack of a spectrometer inside the deep-drilling heat-flow probe. Indeed, we are all aware of the tight budget and the focused mission theme, but it’s the deepest drilling-rig to be sent to another world. Unable to analyze the dirt around it feels like a missed opportunity… Say it wedged itself into something interesting…we would not know.

    • Lee Graves says

      “We know almost nothing about the interior of Mars. That’s why InSight was chosen.” Not exactly the most convincing reason. We know almost nothing about a lot of things in the Solar System. Personally, I would also liked to have seen something a little more daring. Titan, Enceladus, Europa, etc. But knowing the severe budget constraints, Mars probably was an easy pick.

    • Torbjörn Larsson says

      I was a little bummed out at first. But the science is really timely, as Stern said on the Moon LRO instruments, it does something not done in 40 years (here sufficiently resolved seismology).

      Looking at it from my astrobiology interest, we have the tactic and strategic outcome from this choice.

      Tactically we now need to know the inner status of Mars to get at some of its extant and extinct habitability envelope both. And that, combined with increased knowledge on evolution of terrestrials and plate tectonics in terrestrials, gets at exoplanet habitability.

      Strategically it clears the table on Discovery missions. The two rejects goes back into the pool, and it can be updated. Cassini’s Caroline Porco is pushing for an Enceladus mission as the hottest astrobiology project out there, and I tend to agree.

      Porco says the mission profile can get by with gravitational braking amongst Saturn’s moons (no Titan aerobrake needed), and wants a rapid sampler without return. Landing a probe aside the jets after some sniffing and charting passes will enable pristine returning jetted samples to drop in, aside from surface collection of fresh ones.

      Even at half the mass of Cassini (I’m guessing here), such a mission is not Discovery class though. But I doubt it is a Flagship mission either, or at least I hope so. If it is a New Frontier mission, the selection is in the 2013-22 range.

      On the InSight, that video was not very informative aside from confirming the Phoenix style platform. There is a better, but too long, video out there where the instruments are somewhat displayed by team members.

      The 1st drop is the seismometer, the 2nd should be a shield at a guess, the 3d is the probe illustrated in the opening image here. The instruments not shown are antennas for positioning, I guess trying to constrain Mars’ wobble better than Opportunity will.

      My main concern with the probe is that the possibility of ices will be a huge risk. It is a wedged probe that hammers itself down by an eccentric spring load mechanism. It seems it works well on regolith, but I doubt it can penetrate fossil ices.

      As for squandering the possibility for a first look at deeply buried organics, it is a one way probe. But maybe they could have rigged up a simple passive flex tubing to the platform and a local heater at the tube orifice. That could enable blowing nitrogen or helium gas down and return vapors at a point a few probe lengths removed from the final thermal mission position. The thermal transient would soon die out.

      • Indeed! An Enceladus astrobiology mission would be a fantastic. Much easier than Europa. A lander/hopper would be excellent, though a single orbiter might do the trick. Just have to swoop through the jets as slow as possible, and maybe capture ice particles with aerogel?

        If in a few years from now, we find the probe unable to dig deeper, and IF it is known it cannot burrow through a solid mass, it could either be rock or ice. A discovery of buried equatorial ice would be quite a discovery, but as far as I know, we will not know what can stop it at its present design. Unless an accelerometer can help determine if it is rock or ice? Perhaps it is strong enough to penetrate ice?

        As for a one-way probe, you can see the penetrator designs for the ill fated Deep Space II and Mars 96 missions. If there is enough time and money available, a tiny spectrometer and DS-II derived water sensor could sit above the hammer mechanism. In the longer InSight video, they say they have plenty of instrument deployment margins. Though I agree, unable to sense the composition of the deep regolith is missed opportunity.

  3. Juniper says

    I hope that Titan Mare Explorer will be incorporated in the proposed Titan Saturn System Mission, which should release a lake lander and a baloon probe on Titan.
    The choosen Mars mission is very interesting too.

  4. Only a black and white camera to stay on budget and on time? I offer a free color camera.

  5. zetetic elench says

    Send another rover and let the skycrane do this. Think modular.

    • Torbjörn Larsson says

      The use of skycrane is not a Discovery mission budget item. Think constrained budget, e.g. non-modular.

      Conversely, most of the sales pitch is in the reuse of the known platform and its still up to date team members. (It is in the longer youtube not shown here.) They can guarantee the lowest risk, including economical risk, mission.

      Which in NASAs current position is a win-win. The politicians wanted to force them to consider cost increase and now NASA can show they take responsibility. While at the same time NASA can more safely plan for the next, possibly more lenient, mission budget period.

  6. I wish the InSight mission well, but I’m entirely disappointed that TiME was not selected. I hope it happens within my lifetime –

  7. PolishBear says

    The Pentagon spends nearly $700 billion per year for military adventures overseas, and of course defense contractors charge as much as our government is willing to pay (Remember the infamous $500 hammers?). Imagine if our defense budget could be tightened JUST A LITTLE. Imagine how much money would be freed up for scientific research like this.

    • zetetic elench says

      It makes me sick how uninteresting this country has become in that regard. They better heed Eisenhower sooner or later. WW2 is over. Hemorrhaging men and money overseas is a fools errand. Those military incursions become JOBS and no one want to lose their job now, do they?

    • Dampe says

      It sickens me too. Not only that, but our politicians travel the world, dining like royalty, and throw away our tax money to other nations of corrupt leaders.

  8. jameskrug says

    This is incredibly disappointing, and unfortunately showcases the general lack of creativity with which a once creative organization is now saddled. So they JUST landed a rover, and now they’re planning….another rover?

    Not only were the other 2 project options far more interesting due to their unprecedented nature, but this rover won’t be able to provide us anything more direct than what we already have about Mars’s interior. Like all of the rovers, it will raise questions, but provide direct answers to very few of them.

    That is a very disappointing use of $425,000,000.

  9. James Rickertsen says

    Mars is cool and all but other destinations need love too. I am really sad to see TiME did not get selected.

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