New mission to Red Planet gets green light


Two weeks after landing the Curiosity rover on Mars without a hitch, scientists and engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory learned that their InSight mission to study the Martian interior had received the go-ahead from NASA.

InSight — short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport — will use a lander to understand how Mars, Earth and other rocky planets were formed in the early days of the solar system.

Planned to launch in March 2016 and reach Mars six months later, the lander would operate for 720 days and give the Red Planet the equivalent of a doctor’s physical — checking its pulse, gauging its reflexes and taking its temperature.

PHOTOS: History of Mars exploration

InSight’s instruments will be designed to pick up any seismic activity rumbling through the planet; take note of any meteor impacts on the surface; burrow as much as 16 feet deep to study how heat flows underground; and measure how Mars’ two moons exert tidal forces on the planet, causing it to stretch one way or another.

The $425-million mission was selected Monday as part of the Discovery program, which focuses on low-cost planetary exploration. Pathfinder — the 1997 expedition that delivered the first rover to Mars — was another such mission.

To save costs, InSight will use some of the same technology employed by the Phoenix lander, which began studying ice near the Martian north pole in 2008.

Insight had faced stiff competition, beating out a proposal to explore Saturn’s moon Titan and another to send a spacecraft to the surface of a comet.

The decision to fund another Mars mission at JPL in La Cañada Flintridge had nothing to do with Curiosity’s successful landing in Gale Crater two weeks ago, scientists said. In fact, the decision was made well in advance of the rover’s Aug. 5 landing so that its success or failure would not influence the results, said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

Studying Mars’ interior could help scientists understand how the rocky planets evolved billions of years ago, said geophysicist and mission deputy principal investigator Sue Smrekar.

Much of the layered record of Earth’s history has been churned up by its own tectonics, she said. Mars has been subject to less internal activity, so it should have a more pristine record of its early formation that can tell scientists about how small, rocky planets came to be.

“This will give us the ability to really add an entirely new data set to our understanding of how planets evolve,” she said.