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NASA selects mission to explore interior of Mars

NASA will be landing on Mars again. Just weeks after the successful landing of the Mars rover Curiosity, NASA on Monday announced that it had selected a mission that in 2016 would land near the equator of Mars in order to listen to the tremors rumbling through the planet’s interior. The US$425-million mission, called InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) could expect to hear quakes as large as magnitude 4.5 or 5 in its two-year mission.

InSight beat out a mission to float on a hydrocarbon sea of Saturn’s moon Titan, and a mission that would have hopped on the surface of a comet. All three were “very compelling”, says NASA science chief John Grunsfeld. “The only disappointing thing is we can’t select them all to go on,” he says.

A month ago, Nature profiled each of the three finalists in NASA’s low-cost Discovery competition, as well as explored the consequences of a slowing cadence of mission launches.

At the time, the principal investigator, Bruce Banerdt, of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, told me that in spite of the long history of Mars exploration, only the surface had been scratched. There are multiple National Academies studies that point to the need to get below the surface, he says. “There’s been a consistent drumbeat for 35 years that we need to study the interior of Mars,” he says. The mission should greatly reduce the uncertainty bounds on the thickness of the Martian crust  — potentially illuminating how Mars, in its early history, differentiated into a core, mantle and crust. It could also set limits on the size and density of the Martian core  — which in turn could help to explain the history of the planet’s magnetic dynamo.

Banerdt pointed out the misconception that you needed an array of two or more seismometers to study tremors. With new seismological techniques, he says, a single lander is enough. The mission relies on the same basic spacecraft design used by the Phoenix lander mission in 2008.

Image: NASA/JPL

 

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    Irwin Wikler said:

    Let’s face it. For dozens of years we have observed, mapped driven on its surface, scraped its rocks (having failed only in an attempt to collect and return a specimen of its surface) and, despite all the technical accomplishments, we have found no conclusive evidence that Mars currently contains, or ever contained, “Life,” as that word can be described by any definition you can reasonably suggest. Let’s face it: the Planet is lifeless and no amount of drilling into its surface and adding hoy water is going to produce hot chocolate.This is a shame for two reasons: Firstly, no planet in our solar system (other than Earth) exists in the “Sweet Spot” containing the proximity to the Sun, a carbon base and a gravity capable of retaining an atmosphere and a stabilizing balance if two moons sufficient to keep the whole thing together and at a promising distance from theb Sun. What’s more, the people at the JPL and NASA have invented very cool ways to take advantage of all these physical aspects of Mars to place a “Land Rover-sized moving gizmo right where they were aiming for. (They really didn’t need all the cartoonish hoopla to capture the public’s interest. (If they want to watch a carton called “Seven Minutes of Terror,” they can come to my house any night for dinner or if they’re looking for the God Particle, “I’m sure Mookie. Wilson is still around.) But if they want to discover something really new and unknown, and make history in doing so, send out a couple more technically advanced Voyager probe and let them go (and transmit new telemetry from places no person (and no machine made by the hands of men) have yet travelled. That would be so much more exciting than listening to PR news reports that Rover is still trying to dig itself out of a ditch on Mars (and shouldn’t they have thought of that beforehand?) Driving around Mars in a Curiosity AWD is like trying to find a place a Land Rover in NYC.

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