MSL Picture of the Day: T+15 Days: InSight

MSL Picture of the Day: T+15 Days: InSight

When Curiosity landed safely on Mars we were happy, but personally I was also worried. Not for Curiosity as I figured if she landed safely on Mars with no more force than a 2.7 km/hour bump in to Mars (her speed at touch down) she was probably more than fine.
What I was worried about was the fact that at that moment besides the MAVEN satellite mission of 2013 no new NASA missions to Mars had been announced yet.  With all the talk of budget cuts everywhere, I feared that NASA might not have any incentive, let alone funds, to put a new Mars mission on the calendar. Today my fears were somewhat allayed as NASA chose ‘InSight’ , the next Mars mission scheduled to land on Mars in September 2016 for a two-year scientific mission.

The Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight)  mission will place a lander on the Martian surface 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, or is it? Detailed knowledge of the interior of Mars in comparison to Earth will help scientists understand better how terrestrial planets form and evolve.  InSight will look into the tremble of quakes and other internal activity, giving scientists clues about the planet’s structure and ongoing geologic changes.This first look into the deep interior of Mars aims to see why the Red Planet evolved so differently from Earth as one of our solar system’s rocky planets.

The lander will be equipped with 4 instruments:
*  an onboard geodetic instrument to determine the planet’s rotation axis (JPL)

* a robotic arm and two cameras used to deploy and monitor instruments on the Martian surface (JPL)

* an seismometer to measure seismic waves traveling through the planet’s interior (CNES, France) to find out what types of quakes and other internal activities happen within the interior of Mars. The Viking landers carried seismometers but did not return the information hoped for.

* a subsurface heat probe to measure the flow of heat from the interior (DLR, Germany), on a drill capable of boring up to nearly 5 meters (16 feet) underground.

InSight builds on spacecraft technology used in the Phoenix lander mission (2007), which determined water existed near the surface in the Martian polar regions. To get their mission picked for the next NASA Discovery mission the InSight team chose to incorporate proven Mars mission systems. This helped to keep the InSight mission budget within the financial constrains of Discovery missions. The cost of the mission is set at $425 million, however that does not include the launch costs.

InSight will be led by W. Bruce Banerdt of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. Besides US involvement with this missions the French space agency Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES) and the German Aerospace Center (DLR) are involved.

InSight is the 12th mission in NASA’s Discovery-class missions. The Discovery Program, created in 1992, sponsors frequent, cost-capped solar system exploration missions with highly focused scientific goals. This Discovery program is separate from the line of dedicated Mars missions.
NASA requested Discovery mission proposals in June 2010 and received 28. InSight was one of three proposed missions selected in May 2011 for funding to conduct preliminary design studies and analyses.
The other two proposals were a proprosal toan instrumented raft designed to splash down into a hydrocarbon sea on Saturn’s moon Titan and a probe aimed at visiting a comet. Both the Tian and comet missions carried more cost and were considered riskier than the InSight mission, which is based on proven technology.

InSight’s launch window is 8-27 March 2016, with a planned landing on 20 September 2012 somewhere on a flat equatorial Martian plain to conduct a two year mission on Mars.

The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN) is scheduled for launch between November 18 and December 7, 2013. If it is launched November 18, it will arrive at Mars on September 16, 2014 for its year-long mission. MAVEN is to study the red planet’s upper atmosphere.

After that dedicated Mars mission nothing had been planned yet, but a committee is reviewing possibilities for a lander or satellite launch in 2018 or 2020.  This committee was formed after NASA pulled out of a partnership with the European Space Agency’s ExoMars mission, a combined orbiter and rover project which was supposed to be launched in 2016 and 2018.
NASA withdrew from ExoMars because the mission budget did not cover the launch vehicles, descent and landing hardware, and scientific instruments.

Interestingly to us at Explore Mars is that the committee is tasked to merge the Robotic exploration program with research that demonstrates capabilities needed for Human Mars missions, such as precision landing and optical communications. Therefore we can hardly wait for the recommendations of the committee later this month.

I find it hopeful that today, in contrast to some years ago, human mars missions are on the agenda of NASA even if no date is set yet for the first Mars mission by humans. We advice the NASA committee to look into the Human Mars mission architectures of Aerojet, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Space X and its own Red Dragon team. We might get humans to Mars by 2030 yet …

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