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New Insight into Martian Geology Coming in 2016

New Insight into Martian Geology Coming in 2016

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.

Related posts:

Curiosity Kills It, Lands on Mars

2013 NASA Budget Gutted

Scientists Discover Vast, Frozen CO2 Deposit on Mars

Read more: , , , , , , , ,

Image credit: JPL/NASA

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24 comments

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8:33AM PST on Jan 12, 2013

Thank you Mindy, for Sharing this!

11:49PM PDT on Aug 30, 2012

Cheers.

12:40PM PDT on Aug 30, 2012

@ Pam W “benefits to science and technology” I do appreciate aand use the Velcro {although it was developed outside the space industry} but I just can’t bring myself to drink Tang. NEWS FLASH ! WE could better benefit our world by paying for projects here on Earth ! Such as underground living quarters to be ready for the near future when surface living is unbearable through desert heat, floods too deep to wade through and wildfires destroying our view. That would create just as many jobs, or even more, a more practical make-work project than this boondoggle..

12:21PM PDT on Aug 30, 2012

@ Philippa W... Learning about the tereresrial world before we destroy it is a worthy goal. What is so wrong about extra –terrestrial objects is : that it is enormously expensive. That it wastes our precious and dwindling resources, that it creates significant pollution, and that it is irrelevant to our pressing problems on our own planet. If there is an indication that there was once some kind of life on Mars, possibly microbes, yawn. :-o. If no sign of present or past life of any kind is found, yawn :-O. This for the sake of pointless curiosity ? If there is a big interest in barren deserts, we have the Sahara and it is growing larger. Let’s examine it to find what life once existed there. I am really curious.

12:19PM PDT on Aug 30, 2012

@ Philippa W... Learning about the tereresrial world before we destroy it is a worthy goal. What is so wrong about extra –terrestrial objects is : that it is enormously expensive. That it wastes our precious and dwindling resources, that it creates significant pollution, and that it is irrelevant to our pressing problems on our own planet. If there is an indication that there was once some kind of life on Mars, possibly microbes, yawn. :-o. If no sign of present or past life of any kind is found, yawn :-O. This for the sake of pointless curiosity ? If there is a big interest in barren deserts, we have the Sahara and it is growing larger. Let’s examine it to find what life once existed there. I am really curious.

4:31AM PDT on Aug 29, 2012

Who wants a ticket on the starship Enterprise, destination Mars 2016...

1:11AM PDT on Aug 29, 2012

Thanks for the information.

12:58AM PDT on Aug 29, 2012

Thanks Mindy.

11:49PM PDT on Aug 28, 2012

John M, why would be want to find a way to use the oceans for human habitation? What is so wrong about learning about the natural world, be it terrestrial or extra-terrestrial simply for the sake of understanding, appreciating and marvelling and using the benefits that come with that for humans rather than seeking ways to exploit more and more of our home?

The interest in understanding ourselves and our world is much more deeply profound than simply "oh let's explore here so we can habitate and destroy it".

1:22PM PDT on Aug 28, 2012

A bright ray of hope here---or could it be a last gasp---from a country where education, science and critical thinking are under relentless attack from the GOP on a daily basis now. At the same time, Republicans shovel many billions of dollars at corporations and the hyper-rich for "defense" tax breaks, subsidies, etc., etc. that the 1% neither needs nor deserves any more of. Our priorities are so skewed it would be surprising that we could still hit the broad side of a barn, not to mention Mars.

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