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:


  1. I feel so sorry for the TiME team - what an inspiring and out there proposal it was. Maybe that's the problem - too out there, too much of a budget blowout risk in this environment?

    I really really hope that we get the lake lander in our lifetimes, maybe it will happen if the planetary science budget improves as part of another 'flagship' mission next decade.

    In the meantime - I agree, InSight is a canny and very Discovery class focused idea. And let's face it, no seismometers on Mars since 1976 (and even they didn't work)? - that's an obvious gap waiting to be plugged.

    The next question is - where is this thing going to land? Somewhere with an expected higher than normal heat flux? I guess it will have to be near the equator, to get as long as possible out of the mission, and somewhere well below datum, for EDL. Any guesses?



  2. Watching NASA transforming itself into MASA (Mars Atmospheric and Surface Administration) is becoming so excruciatingly upsetting that perhaps I really need to stop following NASA solar system exploration, something I really used to love since youth.
    ESA seems to have much much more variety in their missions. They might not have the same technical capabilities, but they more than make up for it with a vastly more scientific, non Mars obsessed approach.

    I love the circularity of the arguments "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."
    Of course if most of your money goes to Mars missions, then you get very good at doing that at the expense of everything else.

    This is one of NASA's darkest days since SIM cancellation.

  3. It's clear the choosing of InSight over the much more interesting TIME was motivated by politics and Mars-favoritism. Even Administrator Bolden pretty much admitted that inSight won because Mars is a "top priority"

    Bolden: "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."

    The other reasons InSight was chosen: It's a JPL project, meaning that all those Curiosity EDL engineers will have job security through 2016.

    And of course the majority of planetary scientists are Mars scientists.

    I just dislike how NASA pretends this decision was a fair one based only on science, budget, and readiness when it's clear that internal NASA politics were at least as big, if not a bigger factor.

    A sad day for NASA indeed. Hopefully we'll see images from the surface of a Titan sea in our lifetimes, but it could have been as early as 2023.

  4. I agree. TIME would have provided the best science. Imagine if we had images from a Titan sea. Chopper would have been good second. The last two Discovery selections were disappointing (GRAIL and now InSight). At least Osiris-Rex in New Frontiers redeemed the last selection. You know what's the biggest issue, NASA cancelled the Mars Scout program. InSight should have been a Mars Scout mission.