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NASA gets go-ahead to build next Mars probe InSight

Paul Sutherland, Feature writer
May 20, 2014, 23:00 UTC

Sen—Work is set to begin on building NASA’s next big Mars lander, InSight, after the mission sailed through a major review of its design.

The mission, whose full name is Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, will be the first to penetrate deep into the martian surface to study the planet’s interior.

Scientists want to know more about how rocky planets like the Earth and Mars formed and developed their cores, inner layers, mantle and crust. InSight will be equipped with a range of instruments provided by international partners to help find out.

At the end of last week, InSight completed a successful Mission Critical Design Review, NASA said, allowing the agency and its international partners to proceed with its construction.

Another first for the mission will come with its launch, scheduled for March 2016. InSight will be the first to the planets to lift off from California when it is carried into the sky by a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 401 rocket from the Vandenberg Air Force Base.

After a six-month journey to the Red Planet, Insight will land near the martian equator to begin a mission scheduled to last 720 days, or about two years. Unlike NASA’s Curiosity, or Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), it will stay put where it lands.

InSight’s three-legged design borrows much from a previous successful NASA lander, Phoenix, which operated at a far-northern latitude on Mars in 2008 before dying of cold.

InSight Program Manager Stu Spath of Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, said: “We will incorporate many features from our Phoenix spacecraft into InSight, but the differences between the missions require some differences in the InSight spacecraft.

“For example, the InSight mission duration is 630 days longer than Phoenix, which means the lander will have to endure a wider range of environmental conditions on the surface.”

Mission team members for InSight explain how the spacecraft will investigate Mars’ interior. Credit: NASA

InSight will be equipped with a robotic arm that will deploy instruments supplied by the space agencies of France (CNES) and Germany (DLR) to burrow into and study the martian surface.

One important experiment being supplied by CNES, in partnership with DLR and the space agencies of the UK and Switzerland, is a seismometer to measure “marsquakes”. The plan is for the probe’s arm to place this instrument, termed the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS), on the surface and then to place a protective cover over it to reduce the effects of wind and temperature changes.

Another tool, the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package, supplied by DLR, will measure heat coming toward the martian surface from the planet’s interior.

More science will be performed using the radio link between InSight and NASA’s Deep Space Network antennas on Earth to measure precisely a wobble in Mars’ rotation that could reveal whether the planet has a molten or solid core.

Wind and temperature sensors supplied by Spain along with a pressure sensor will monitor weather at the landing site, and a magnetometer will measure magnetic disturbances caused by the Martian ionosphere. With other members of the science team coming from Austria, Belgium, Canada, Japan and Poland, this will be a truly international mission.

Bruce Banerdt, InSight Principal Investigator, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said: “Mars actually offers an advantage over Earth itself for understanding how habitable planetary surfaces can form.

“Both planets underwent the same early processes. But Mars, being smaller, cooled faster and became less active while Earth kept churning. So Mars better preserves the evidence about the early stages of rocky planets’ development.”

NASA currently has an orbiter called MAVEN en route to Mars, arriving on 21 September, 2014, to study the planet's atmosphere. India's first Mars probe, the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), is due to go into orbit three days later.