Feeling very confident after the perfect landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars on August 6th, NASA has announced its next mission to the Red Planet. In 2016, the US space agency will launch the unmanned InSight lander to Mars. Unlike Curiosity, InSight will be a static lander loaded with instruments designed to study the deep geology of Mars and answer such questions as whether the core of the planet is liquid or solid, and why Mars hasn’t any shifting tectonic plates like Earth.
The solar-powered InSight (Interior exploration using Seismology, Geodesy, and Heat Transfer) may not be wheeling about the surface of Mars under nuclear power, but it is assigned with a number of important tasks. It will determine the size, composition, and physical state of the Martian core; the thickness and structure of the Martian crust; the composition and structure of the planet's’ mantle; and, how hot the interior of Mars is. In addition, it will record earthquakes (or rather, marsquakes) and measure the rate of meteorite impacts on the surface.
InSight will carry four instruments to Mars. The first is a seismometer called SEIS. Its job is to precisely measure quakes and other seismic activity, which will provide valuable insights into the structure and composition of Mars.
The second is HP3, a heat flow probe that will be thrust five meters (16.4 ft) into the ground – deeper than any previous penetration of the Martian surface. It will measure how hot Mars is and determine the planet’s thermal history.
The third instrument is RISE. Its job is to use the Doppler shift of radio communications with Earth to track how much Mars wobbles as it rotates. This will help determine whether the interior core is liquid or solid. It works on the same principle as the test to see if an egg is raw or hard boiled by spinning it on a table top. If it’s hard boiled, it spins. If it’s raw, then the egg wobbles and falls down.
Finally, there is InSight’s camera. This is similar to the Navcams on Curiosity and other NASA rovers. It will send back black and white images to inspect the craft after landing, help mission control in deploying instruments, and provide a panoramic view of the landing site. A second camera, similar to Curiosity’s Hazcam, is mounted under the lander’s deck to provide additional coverage.
The launch date has already been set for between March 8th and 27th, 2016 when Mars will be in the right position for a rendezvous. InSight will land on Mars on September 20th of that year. During its 720-day mission, InSight will send back more than 29 gigabytes of scientific data.
The twelfth of NASA’s Discovery-class missions, InSight is a cost-capped mission meant to explore Mars while remaining within a budget of US$425 million. As part of this, the lander’s design is based on NASA’s Phoenix lander, which successfully touched down on Mars in 2007. The InSight team is led by W. Bruce Banerdt at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. Universities and international agencies, such as France’s Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales (CNES) and Germany’s Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR), will contribute instruments for the lander.
The video below is a NASA animation of InSight on Mars.