August 21, 2012
NASA InSight Mission To Study The Interior Of Mars
April Flowers for redOrbit.com - Your Universe OnlineNASA announced on Monday the selection of a new Discovery-class mission that will further NASA's exploration of our solar system. This will be the 12th in the Discovery-class mission series.
Journalists from across the nation participated in a question and answer session, with many more listening in to the streaming audio, including yours truly. The panel from NASA included John Grunsfeld, an astronaut and associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, and James Green, the director of NASA's Planetary Science Division. The fascinating conversation included questions on everything from the caliber of cameras being used to the number of seismographs to "why that planet, again?" Grunsfeld and Green handled every question with articulate, and sometimes humorous, answers.
The new mission, named InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport), will launch in 2016, and it will take the first look into the deep interior of Mars to see why the Red Planet evolved so differently from Earth.
InSight will place instruments on the Martian surface to investigate whether the core of Mars is solid or liquid like the Earth's and why Mars' crust is not divided into tectonic plates that drift like on Earth. Comparing detailed knowledge of the interior of Mars to the interior of the Earth will help scientists understand how terrestrial planets form and evolve.
In terms of fundamental processes that shape planetary formation, Mars is a veritable "Goldilocks" planet, a term I first heard on a science fiction TV show. Mars is called a goldilocks planet because it is big enough to have undergone the earliest internal heating and differentiation (separation of the crust, mantle and core) processes that shaped the terrestrial planets (Earth, Venus, Mercury, Moon), but small enough to have retained the signature of those processes over the next four billion years. Within its own structural signature, Mars may contain the most in-depth and accurate record in the solar system of these processes.
"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," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said. "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."
InSight will be led by W. Bruce Banerdt at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. InSight's science team includes U.S. and international co-investigators from universities, industry and government agencies. The French space agency Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales, or CNES, and the German Aerospace Center, or DLR, are contributing instruments to InSight, which is scheduled to land on Mars in September 2016 to begin its two-year scientific mission.
The Discovery Program was created in 1992 to sponsor frequent cost-capped solar system exploration missions with highly focused goals. In June 2010, NASA requested Discovery mission proposals and received 28. InSight was one of three selected for funding to conduct preliminary design studies and analyses. The other two proposals, ultimately rejected, were for missions to a comet and Saturn's moon, Titan.
Recent Discovery missions include MESSENGER, Dawn, Stardust, Deep Impact and Genesis. NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., manages the program for the agency's Science Mission Directorate.
InSight builds on spacecraft technology used in NASA's highly successful Phoenix lander mission, which was launched to Mars in 2007 and determined water existed near the surface in the Martian polar regions. By incorporating proven systems in the mission, the InSight team demonstrated that the mission concept was low-risk and could stay within the cost-constrained budget of Discovery missions.
"The cost of the mission, excluding the launch vehicle and related services, is capped at $425 million in 2010 dollars."
"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."
InSight will carry four instruments. JPL will provide an onboard 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. 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 is building a subsurface heat probe to measure the flow of heat from the interior.
These instruments are expected to deliver data on everything from the "pulse" of Mars (internal activity), to its "reflexes" (the way the planet wobbles when it is pulled by the gravity of the Sun and its own moons), to seismic data and planetary rotation.
NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., manages the Discovery Program for the agency's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.