And the Answer Is ... Another Mars Mission--Update
UPDATE: This story has been updated to reflect comments made during NASA's media teleconference today.
Fresh from the excitement of landing the Curisoity rover on Mars, NASA has selected another Mars lander as the next in its mid-sized Discovery series of planetary exploration missions.
Called InSight, for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (formerly named the Geophysical Monitoring Station -- GEMS), the $425 million mission (in 2010 dollars, not including a launch vehicle) is a cooperative project with France and Germany. Led by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), InSight will be launched in 2016. It is a lander that will study the interior of Mars and builds on technology used for NASA's 2007 Mars Phoenix mission.
The Mars exploration community was in a tizzy earlier this year when budget cuts caused NASA to withdraw from planned cooperation with the European Space Agency (ESA) on a series of Mars probes beginning with launches in 2016 and 2018. They were part of a series of large "flagship" missions that eventually would have led to returning a sample of Mars to Earth. The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) decided that the United States could not commit to a series of expensive Mars missions right now and cut NASA's FY2013 budget request for planetary science by 20 percent.
However, OMB permitted NASA to study an alternative, less expensive mission for launch in 2018 or 2020. That study is ongoing. The outcry from the Mars advocacy community was sufficient to cause the House and Senate appropriations committees to recommend restoring money for Mars exploration, although the final version of the FY2013 appropriations bill has not yet cleared Congress.
Probes can be sent to Mars every 26 months when Earth and Mars are aligned properly in their orbits. The United States has sent probes to Mars at every opportunity since 1996, except for 2009. That was the original launch date for the Curiosity mission, but it ran into technical problems and had to be delayed to 2011. It landed on Mars two weeks ago after an eight month journey.
With InSight selected for the 2016 opportunity and planning underway for a 2018 mission, it may be that NASA continues to launch at every 26-month interval despite the constrained budgetary outlook. The rest of the solar system, however, apparently will have to wait. The other two candidates for the Discovery selection were a mission to Saturn's moon Titan and a mission to study comets. The Titan Mare Explorer (TIME) envisioned floating a probe on one of Titan's methane seas. The Comet Hopper would have repeatedly landed a spacecraft on a comet to study how it changes as it interacts with the sun.
At a media teleconference today, NASA Associate Administrator for Science John Grunsfeld and NASA Planetary Science Division Director Jim Green said the three candidates were judged fairly equal in terms of the scientific knowledge they would obtain, but InSight was assessed to most likely meet the cost and schedule requirements.
Meanwhile, ESA is trying to save its 2016 ExoMars mission, with its new partner, Russia. The mission continues to face financial hurdles.
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