NASA picks new planetary mission and it’s off to Mars… again

Stationary Mars lander beats two prominent contenders to secure funding for 2016.


Artist’s rendering of InSight on the surface of Mars.

NASA has selected the next adventure in its Discovery-class missions (which include the Deep Impact comet probe and the Kepler space telescope), one of NASA’s flagship programs to explore the Solar System, and the winning ticket is a return to the Red Planet with a new stationary lander.

Called InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) the new mission will place instruments on the Martian surface (including a drill to probe underground) to investigate whether the core of Mars is solid or liquid like Earth’s, and why Mars’ crust is not divided into tectonic plates that drift like Earth’s. Detailed knowledge of the interior of Mars in comparison to Earth is expected to help scientists understand better how terrestrial planets form and evolve.

While we’re thrilled that NASA is continuing to explore the Solar System like no other agency in the world, we are a little disappointed that recent funding cuts have meant the world’s greatest space agency is limited to safe, low-risk missions that are likely to stick to budget and not overrun.

Indeed, the cost of the entire InSight mission (not including the launch rocket) must come in at a maximum of $425 million, less than a fifth the cost of the Curiosity rover, which was one of the key decisions in choosing a technology that has been tried and tested before (namely on NASA’s Mars Phoenix lander in 2007). However, the two other missions being considered, while slightly riskier, offered the chance to explore the Solar System like never before.

The Titan Mare Explorer (TiME) would’ve become humanity’s first ever sea-faring space boat, exploring the vast and possibly life-harbouring lakes of Saturn’s moon Titan. The other candidate mission, Comet Hopper, would have landed on a comet multiple times to study its motion around the Sun and test comet-landing technologies. Sadly, due to Titan’s orbit around Saturn, it is unlikely we’ll see the former mission until beyond 2035 as the moon will move out of our line of sight behind Saturn in 2026, making communications between Earth and a lander on its surface impossible for nine years. TiME would have to be launched before 2023 for any chance of worthwhile science.

TiME was ambitious, but would it have been one of our greatest ever missions?

“One of the major factors for both Comet Hopper and for the Titan Mare Explorer, you know, were cost risks — cost and schedule risks,” said John Grunsfield, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “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.”

Nonetheless, we’re sure InSight will prove to be a great success for NASA. It’s scheduled to launch in 2016, and will have a primary missions of two years on the surface of Mars.

What’s your thoughts? Would you have preferred one of the other missions to be picked? Let us know below.

Images courtesy of JPL/NASA

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