The Mars Science Laboratory has only been on Mars now for two weeks, but even as it tested out its robotic arm for the first time and zapped its first Martian rock, NASA has decided to announce its next big mission to the surface of Mars. Just don’t expect sky cranes or high quality promotion videos for this one. The NASA InSight mission won’t be a rover, it’ll be a stationary robotic probe that will be tasked with telling us more about the red planet’s interior.
The InSight Mission’s design will be based on existing, or heritage, technologies that were developed for the Mars Phoenix mission. The Phoenix was sent on a relatively short duration mission to the north polar region of Mars. Its mission went from May to August of 2008 and was also a stationary lander design that had the task of finding out if the Martian poles were an area suitable for microbial life forms. The use of the Phoenix’s landing systems will help to lower the cost of the InSight mission, which is probably the key to this being announced so soon after Curiosity’s arrival since NASA’s planetary science budget has been slashed for the upcoming fiscal year.
The InSight itself will have on board a suite of instruments to fulfill its geophysical mission to the red planet. It will dig into the soil to measure seasonal changes to the subsurface temperature of Mars and will also feature a seismometer and a mechanism for measuring the rotational wobble of Mars in an effort to try and figure out the size and make up of the planet’s core. It is the goal of the mission to find out why Mars doesn’t exhibit the same system of plate tectonics that drives geologic transformation here on Earth.
While the InSight won’t have the same “Wow” factor as Curiosity it will provide cold hard data that we don’t have yet about Mars and help give a more accurate view of the Martian subsurface that has only been hypothesized on before. If you’d rather have a big multi-billion dollar rover with a ton of different science instruments aboard it, or for that matter, people, then you should probably make an effort to tell your lawmakers to increase NASA’s budget.