NASA and its international partners have been given the green light to begin construction on a new Mars lander to be launched in 2016, after it completed a successful Mission Critical Design Review on Friday.
The Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission will penetrate beneath the surface of Mars and study the interior of the planet. It will investigate how Earth-like planets formed and developed their layered inner structure of core, mantle and crust, according to a NASA news release.
InSight will launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, on the central California coast near Lompoc, in March 2016 - the first mission ever to launch from California - and will hopefully give scientists insight into a manned mission to Mars, planned for the 2030s.
A robotic arm attached to the lander will deploy two primary instruments, developed by France's Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales (CNES) and Germany's Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR).
The Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) will be built by CNES in partnership with DLR, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. It will measure waves of ground motion carried through the interior of the planet, from "marsquakes" and meteor impacts.
The lander will place the seismometer on the ground with its robotic arm, and then position a protective cover over it to protect the instrument from wind, dust, and extreme temperatures. The Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package, from DLR, will measure heat coming toward the surface from the Red Planet's interior.
These instruments could help determine whether Mars has a liquid core or a solid one, and could help us understand how our own planet was formed.
"Mars actually offers an advantage over Earth itself for understanding how habitable planetary surfaces can form," said Bruce Banerdt, InSight principal investigator from JPL. "Both planets underwent the same early processes. But Mars, being smaller, cooled faster and became less active while Earth kept churning. So Mars better preserves the evidence about the early stages of rocky planets' development."
The three-legged lander will go to a site near the Martian equator for a planned 720-day (or two-year) mission.
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