Monday, August 20, 2012

It's InSight

InSight: The spacecraft

Artist rendition of the proposed InSight (Interior exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) Lander. InSight is based on the proven Phoenix Mars spacecraft and lander design with state-of-the-art avionics from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory missions. Credit: JPL/NASA  From the press release.

NASA announced its selection for the next Discovery mission, the InSight geophysical mission to launch to Mars in 2016.

I know that many of my readers, and I, were hoping that the Titan TiME mission would be selected.  For me, the science of the three candidate missions were all excellent.  However, orbital mechanics meant that this would be the last chance to launch a Titan lake lander that could send its finding directly to Earth without a relay craft.  It's possible to fly a Titan lake lander in the next couple of decades, but the cost of the mission would be higher because of the need for a relay craft.  If the minimal relay is flown, the mission on the lake will last at most hours before the craft moves out of sight of the lakes.  A Saturn or Titan orbiter could enable a mission that could last years, but comes with a substantial cost (but could also do considerable science).  Either the Chopper comet lander mission or InSight could have flown at a number of launch opportunities (although a different comet likely would have to be selected for Chopper).

NASA's managers stated in the press conference that all three candidate missions had equivalent science, but InSight provided the lowest technical and budgetary risk.  That's not surprising since the instruments are mature and the lander itself is a near copy of the successful Mars Phoenix lander.

With the selection of InSight, NASA will need to seek another mission to flight test its new Advanced Stirling Radioisotope Generator (ASRG) that represents its next generation technology to power spacecraft with plutonium.  NASA has announced that ASRG's will be available for the next round of New Frontiers mission selection.  I've not heard whether or not ASRG's will be candidate for the next Discovery mission to be selected in approximately five years.

NASA's renewed focus on Mars missions provides a compelling reason for the InSight mission.  Missions over the last twenty years have greatly deepened our understanding of Mars, and several missions continue their explorations.  The Curiosity rover's mission is just beginning.  Starting in 2018, NASA plans to begin a new series of missions.  InSight neatly plugs a gap in our exploration of Mars -- the deep interior.  In many ways, the surface geology and atmospheric chemistry of any planet are consequences of the composition, structure, and activity of the deep interior.  With InSight, we can begin to link the interior, surface, and atmosphere in new ways.

For more information on the InSight mission, check out these links:

InSight webpage
Summaries I wrote for this blog
     InSight Mission Proposal
     Mars InSight Proposal – Implementation and Science
Presentation on the science of geophysical missions to Mars

Press release follows:

New NASA Mission To Take First Look Deep Inside Mars
20 Aug 2012
(Source: NASA / JPL)

PASADENA, Calif. -- NASA has selected a new mission, set to launch in 2016, that will take the first look into the deep interior of Mars to see why the Red Planet evolved so differently from Earth as one of our solar system's rocky planets.

The new mission, named InSight, will place instruments on the Martian surface to investigate whether the core of Mars is solid or liquid like Earth's, and why Mars' crust is not divided into tectonic plates that drift like Earth's. Detailed knowledge of the interior of Mars in comparison to Earth will help scientists understand better how terrestrial planets form and evolve.

"The exploration of Mars is a top priority for NASA, and the selection of InSight ensures we will continue to unlock the mysteries of the Red Planet and lay the groundwork for a future human mission there," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said. "The recent successful landing of the Curiosity rover has galvanized public interest in space exploration and today's announcement makes clear there are more exciting Mars missions to come."

InSight will be led by W. Bruce Banerdt at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. InSight's science team includes U.S. and international co-investigators from universities, industry and government agencies. The French space agency Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales, or CNES, and the German Aerospace Center are contributing instruments to InSight, which is scheduled to land on Mars in September 2016 to begin its two-year scientific mission.

InSight is the 12th selection in NASA's series of Discovery-class missions. Created in 1992, the Discovery Program sponsors frequent, cost-capped solar system exploration missions with highly focused scientific goals. NASA requested Discovery mission proposals in June 2010 and received 28. InSight was one of three proposed missions selected in May 2011 for funding to conduct preliminary design studies and analyses. The other two proposals were for missions to a comet and Saturn's moon Titan.

InSight builds on spacecraft technology used in NASA's highly successful Phoenix lander mission, which was launched to the Red Planet in 2007 and determined water existed near the surface in the Martian polar regions. By incorporating proven systems in the mission, the InSight team demonstrated that the mission concept was low-risk and could stay within the cost-constrained budget of Discovery missions. The cost of the mission, excluding the launch vehicle and related services, is capped at $425 million in 2010 dollars.

"Our Discovery Program enables scientists to use innovative approaches to answering fundamental questions about our solar system in the lowest cost mission category," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters. "InSight will get to the 'core' of the nature of the interior and structure of Mars, well below the observations we've been able to make from orbit or the surface."

InSight will carry four instruments. JPL will provide an onboard geodetic instrument to determine the planet's rotation axis and a robotic arm and two cameras used to deploy and monitor instruments on the Martian surface. CNES is leading an international consortium that is building an instrument to measure seismic waves traveling through the planet's interior. The German Aerospace Center is building a subsurface heat probe to measure the flow of heat from the interior.

JPL provides project management for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., manages the Discovery Program for the agency's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver will build the spacecraft. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

For more information about InSight, visit:
For more information about the Discovery Program, visit:
For information about NASA and agency programs, visit:

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Updates Before Curiosity's Landing

The news for the next couple of weeks at least will be dominated by news of the Mars Science Laboratory’s landing and first days on Mars.  I will be in the field Sunday night without access to the internet and so will have to learn of its fate Monday morning.  God speed, Curiosity!

With the focus on Curiosity, I suspect that few of you will be interested in news on future missions for a couple of weeks.  So in today’s post, I will catch up on a lot of stories that I haven’t had time to cover in the past month or so.  I’ll start with news that will affect the potential flight of real hardware and will close with more general policy news.

An in-depth overview (if 52 pages can be considered an overview) is available at no charge from thejournal Space Science ReviewsScroll through the recently posted papers for a selection of other open access papers covering several instruments.   

The journal Nature’s website has an article on the Curiosity landingthat includes a nice illustration of how much tighter Curiosity’s landing zone will be than previous missions with the area of the city of London to provide scale.  

The key future planetary mission news of August will be the expected selection of the next NASA Discovery mission and the delivery of the proposed future NASA roadmap.  NASA posted a one sentence notice about a week ago that the announcement of which mission it would pick for the next Discovery mission would come in August.  I expect that the announcement will come in the second half of the month so as to not conflict with the news from Curiosity’s landing.  The NASA roadmap will come from the panel NASA established last winter that will cover the program from 2018 to the early 2030’s (see this summary at  It’s unclear what may be disclosed publicly and when.  What will be possible will be tightly tied to NASA’s proposed 2014 budget, so we may not learn the details until next winter.

A lecture by the Discovery proposal TiME to Titan by the Principle Investigator, Ellen Stofan, is available from this link.  

The European and Russian space agencies continue to make progress with the definition and development of their joint ExoMars mission.  So far as I know, Europe’s decision on whether or not to proceed with the mission is still planned for this fall and depends on finding sufficient funding to close the gap between what member nations have committed and what is needed. reprinted an article from Voice of Russia that provides a list of Russian contributions.  It’s not clear from the article whether these are a list of possible contributions or those that both agencies have agreed to.  The article states that the 2016 orbiter will carry several Russian instruments.  No mention is made of previously discussed Russian provided small landers.  The 2018 rover mission apparently will include a Russian-provided geophysical station that will be delivered with the rover to the Martian surface. 

China has announced that its first lunar lander will arrive on the surface of the moon in the second of 2013 (see here).    The mission is expected to survive for atleast three months on the surface.  China's eventual goal is to return a lunar sample to Earth.  

ESA and NASA have both released their announcements of opportunity for the science community to propose instruments for ESA’s JUICE mission to the icy moons of Jupiter.  (NASA’s contribution to the mission will be $100M, or about 10% of what I recall will be the total investment by ESA and individual European nations for instrument development.)  ESA and Russia are also discussing possible Russian contributions to the mission.

Spectrometers on the Mars Express and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiters has found rocks exhumed from up to several kilometers below the surface of Mars by impactors show that water was present for extended periods below the surface (see article here).  Geologists debate whether the water at the surface of Mars was present for extended or only short periods of time. I wonder if these rocks that are now on the surface might become the focus of a future rover mission to explore whether the ancient depths of Mars might have provided a habitat for life?  

The B612 Foundation has announced plans to raise several hundred mission dollars to launch a space telescope that will seek to find 90% of the near Earth asteroids 100 m and larger in diameter and 50% of those as small as 30 m for an expected total of 500,000 new asteroid discoveries..  If the required funds are acquired, the spacecraft would orbit near the orbit of Venus to look outward toward Earth’s orbit.   

And now for some policy news.  Pamela Gay at discusses how cuts in NASA’s budgets to fund researchers and public outreach are affecting her and other researchers.  (Full disclosure: A portion of my research funding comes from NASA, and I also worry about future funding from both NASA and my other funding agencies.)  She writes, “NASA cut backs could cut me, and deeply hurt my team unless I find other means of funding us. With the National Science Foundation also cutting back… The traditional funding mechanisms aren’t a modern day solution.”  Dr. Gay goes on to discuss a new Indiegogo campaign to raise funds for researchers through crowd sourcing.  If you would like to make a difference to planetary research and can make a contribution (or are just curious) check out their website.  For those of you who are not researchers, you may not know that a few tens of thousands of dollars can fund a graduate student for a year, and less than $100K can fund many small focused studies.  The group currently is looking to raise $75K to fund startup costs. 

And finally, NASA’s Small Body Analysis Group (SBAG) has published its findings from its meeting last May.  Their comments on the changing nature of the Discovery program dove tail an opinion piece is this week’s Nature journal (subscription required).  In Nature, Daniel N. Baker (University of Colorado, Boulder and previously a laboratory director at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center) urges that NASA rebalance it planetary and Earth science programs to provide a greater emphasis on smaller Principle Investigator missions such as the planetary Discovery and New Frontiers and the Earth science Venture missions.  He writes that, “Increasingly, NASA's focus is on big projects that promise to return tremendous science benefits. But these programmes absorb most of the available funding for space research. They shift resources away from efficient and effective principal investigators (PIs) at universities, an approach in which a single person is responsible to NASA for the success of a mission, and towards bureaucratic NASA centres. This is the wrong direction for space research, especially in a time of scarce funding… Universities have been a fertile training ground for thousands of space engineers and researchers, who have learned to be creative while sticking to budgets and schedules… [Yet,] University labs are being driven out of business,” and losing the capacity to develop PI-led missions.

Editorial Note:  In the past, NASA’s planetary budget was large enough to support vigorous programs of larger, agency-led missions as well as smaller PI-led missions.  Now NASA and the scientific community it supports will have to decide on what the new balance should be.  Perhaps creative solutions may be possible.  For example, NASA might develop a new series of smaller, Opportunity-class Mars rovers but let potential PI’s compete to define the payload and landing site.

What follows are the comments from SBAG website:

The Discovery program has substantially collapsed as a source of planetary missions. In its first decade (1992–2001), ten missions were selected for launch. During its second decade (2002–2011), only one was selected.  Implementation of the planetary decadal survey recommendation for a 24-month cadence of Discovery AOs is imperative.

Merging the Mars Scout program with Discovery puts yet further pressure on this program. Restoring the Discovery program to two selections for launch per call is very important to the future of American solar system exploration.

It is noted that one new selection is pending as of this date. The next planned Discovery opportunity currently delayed until 2015. Within the resources it has for missions and mission planning activities, NASA and the Planetary Science Division should work to provide a Discovery opportunity sooner than 2015, as advocated by the decadal survey.

DISCOVERY HISTORY (Initial selections: NEAR, Pathfinder)
AO Date      Missions (and year selected)
1994:          Lunar Prospector, Stardust (1995)
1996:          Genesis, CONTOUR  (1997)
1998:          Deep Impact, MESSENGER (1999)
2000:          Kepler, Dawn (2001)
2002:          *No AO Released*
2004:          *No Mission Selection*
2006:          GRAIL (2007)
2008:          *No AO Released*
2010:          Not yet selected (selection expected in 2012)