NASA unveils InSight mission to study Mars's formation

Scheduled for 2016, the Discovery-class mission will involve putting instruments on the Martian surface to work out whether its core is solid or liquid, and why it doesn't have shifting tectonic plates like Earth does

The Curiosity rover may have only just begun its task of trying to find signs of habitability on Mars , but NASA has already unveiled another mission to the Red Planet.

In 2016 the US space agency will launch InSight, a relatively low-cost Discovery-class mission that will involve putting instruments on the Martian surface to find out whether the planet's core is solid or liquid. NASA is also keen to figure out why Mars's surface does not appear to have drifting tectonic plates, like Earth's.

Mars landscape
NASA's InSight mission will study Mars's formation. Image credit: NASA

Ultimately, NASA is trying to learn more about how rocky planets form.

"The recent successful landing of the Curiosity rover has galvanised public interest in space exploration and today's announcement makes clear there are more exciting Mars missions to come," NASA administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement on Monday.

"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," Bolden added.

InSight will, NASA said, cost no more than $425m (£270m) in 2010 dollars. Discovery missions are intended to be frequent and relatively thrifty — there have been almost a dozen of them in the last 20 years and, by way of comparison, the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission that put Curiosity on Mars cost around $2.5bn.

NASA says InSight will be largely built on the same spacecraft technology as that used for the Phoenix lander in 2008.

As with MSL and other space missions, NASA will be working with academia and industry on the InSight mission. The mission will be led by W Bruce Banerdt of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), but the team will also take in scientists from around the world.

The space agencies of both France and Germany will be contributing instruments to InSight, which is scheduled to land on Mars in September 2016.

France's Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales (CNES) will provide an instrument for measuring seismic waves travelling through the Martian interior. The German Aerospace Center will contribute a subsurface heat probe.

The JPL itself will provide an onboard geodetic instrument for working out Mars's rotation axis, and a robotic arm with cameras for deploying and monitoring all the other instruments.

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