It feels like we just finished celebrating the Curiosity rover’s tremendous landing on the Martian surface. But there is no rest for the wicked. NASA has recently announced another mission to Mars scheduled to blast off in 2016.
This new project — InSight — isn’t a rover, like Curiosity. It will be a lander, which means it will sit in one place. InSight builds off the successful Phoenix lander, which found ice water near the Martian north pole. In fact, this new craft will be very similar to the Phoenix, except for a few additional capabilities.
InSight, which is short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, will study not what is on the Martian surface, but what is below. So the lander will be equipped with a drill and a seismometer, built by Germany and France, respectively. The InSight lander will drill down 5 meters (about 16 feet) into the surface of the planet and record the internal temperature of Mars and measure seismic activity. You see, we know virtually nothing about the internal workings of the Red Planet. Even though it’s rocky, it has no crustal plates and no global magnetic field, as Earth does. We don’t even know if Marsquakes shake the surface of the planet.
Mars is peppered with rovers, probes and landers. At a price tag topped off at $425 million, it’s significantly less expensive than the $2.5 billion Curiosity rover. However, in choosing to go to Mars once again, NASA gave up on more risky opportunities: a robotic voyage on the methane seas of Titan and the exploration of a comet.
The choice is not without its critics. Stuart Clark of The Guardian worries that this may have killed the exploration of Saturn’s largest moon before it’s born:
The Titan Mare Explorer (TiME), however, was unique. It was designed to follow up Esa’s Huygens lander, which touched down on Titan in January 2005. Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, is revealing itself to be arguably the most Earth-like world in the solar system. It has a thick atmosphere and weather similar to ours, although instead of water, its sea, lakes and rain are composed of liquid methane.
TiME would have floated in the Titan sea, showing us this truly alien place. As it stands, Huygens could become the robotic equivalent of the Apollo moon missions: a great start that was simply abandoned. If this were to happen, it would be a tragedy.
A tragedy, indeed. Since I don’t have the engineering or planetary science background, I find it hard to be too critical of NASA’s decision. But we could have been floating on Titan! That feels like a lost opportunity, especially with huge cuts to planetary science.
This lander doesn’t have the same inherent excitement as Curiosity, but the information gleaned will be fascinating and give us a clearer picture of our little red neighbor.
Image credit: JPL/NASA