NASA unveils mission to probe Mars' core

InSight, to launch in 2016, aims to help figure out how Mars formed

NASA has decided to take a much deeper look inside Mars to try to figure out why the Red Planet evolved so differently from Earth.

The space agency announced late on Monday that it will launch a new mission in 2016, named InSight, to hopefully figure out 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 they do on Earth.

insight.pngThe next Mars rover, InSight. Image: Courtesy of NASA.

"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," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. "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."

The announcement about the upcoming mission comes just two weeks after NASA's Mars rover, Curiosity, landed on the Martian surface. Curiosity, NASA's largest and best equipped Mars rover yet, is on a two-year mission to try to discover if the planet ever has been able to support life, even in microbial form.

The 2016 mission, which will be run by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), will involve a lander that carries two cameras, a robotic arm and a thermal probe that will pierce the Martian surface to gauge the planet's temperature. Scientists are hoping that will give them clues as to how Mars is cooling.

The lander, which is expected to land in a flat equatorial area, also will be designed with a sensor that should gauge how much Mars wobbles on its axis. It will also carry an instrument to measure seismic waves traveling through the planet's interior.

"This is science that has been compelling for many years," said John M. Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. "We're very confident that this will produce exciting science and that we will launch in 2016. Does Mars have an active seismic structure today? I am really excited to answer that."

InSight will be part of NASA's Discovery-class series of missions. The Discovery program, which was launched in 1992, sponsored cost-capped, scientific missions to explore the solar system.

The cost of this geological mission is capped at $425 million, though that does not include the cost of the launch vehicle or related services. And the $425 estimate was made in 2010 and does not take inflation into account for a mission scheduled for 2016.

NASA said 28 proposals were submitted for this latest Discovery mission. The choice came down to the final three, which included missions to a comet and Saturn's moon, Titan.

InSight will be an international mission with scientists from the French space agency, Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales, and the German Aerospace Center will supply instruments for the lander.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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