NASA will send robot drill to Mars in 2016

August 20, 2012

In the wake of successfully dropping the SUV-size Curiosity rover on Mars this month, NASA will send another robot to the Red Planet in 2016 to drill into the planet’s crust and, for the first time, piece together a picture of the Martian interior.

The $425 million robotic lander, named InSight, will be built and operated by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, the highflying hotbed of now-famous ­engineers and scientists who designed and assembled the $2.5 billion Curiosity rover and its heart-stopping “sky crane,” which lowered the Curiosity rover to the Martian surface.

On Monday morning, NASA officials informed JPL staff that InSight had won funding over two other proposed missions.

“This is another big day for us out at JPL,” said Gregg Vane, the lab’s head of planning for solar system exploration.

Whereas Curiosity can roam the surface on six wheels, InSight will be planted in one spot after dropping onto the Martian surface — minus the sky crane — in September 2016.

A German-built drill nicknamed “The Mole” will pound 16 feet into the Martian crust to take the temperature of the planet, while a sensitive French-built seismometer will detect any Marsquakes. Together, the instruments will provide vital clues to how Mars formed.

“We’ll be able to deduce the deep structure of Mars, which now is a total mystery,” Vane said. “That means all the way down to the core.”

To date, scientists have determined the deep structure of only one planet — Earth. They know the interior of Mars must be different, because Mars has no magnetic field to shield its surface from radiation. Earth, by contrast, has a strong magnetic field generated by a spinning molten iron core.

Except for the drill and seismometer, which are new, InSight will be a near-copy of the Phoenix lander NASA dropped onto Mars in 2008, which found water ice near the Martian north pole.

In choosing InSight, NASA rejected two riskier missions: a robotic boat that would have floated on a methane lake on Saturn’s moon Titan, and a mission to examine a comet.

Meanwhile, Curiosity has begun shooting its laser “ChemCam” on Mars, blasting a rock Sunday in a successful test of the instrument, which can determine the composition of surface minerals by examining flashes of vaporized gas.

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