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Next Mars mission to probe Red Planet's core

Scheduled to land on Mars sometime in 2016, NASA's next planetary mission will measure seismic waves and heat flows through the Red Planet's interior.

By Mike WallSPACE.com / August 20, 2012

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope snapped this shot of Mars on Aug. 26, 2003, when the Red Planet was 34.7 million miles from Earth. The picture was taken just 11 hours before Mars made its closest approach to us in 60,000 years.

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NASA's next low-budget planetary mission will land a probe on Mars in 2016 to study why the Red Planet went down such a different evolutionary path than Earth did, the agency announced today (Aug. 20).

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The new mission, called InSight, will attempt to determine whether Mars' core is liquid or solid, and why the Red Planet's crust does not appear to be composed of drifting tectonic plates like Earth's is. Such information could help scientists better understand how rocky planets form and evolve, researchers said.

"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," John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said in a statement.

InSight — short for Interior exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport — is the latest of NASA's Discovery-class missions, and its cost will be capped at $425 million in 2010 dollars. [7 Biggest Mysteries of Mars]

The mission will be led by Bruce Banerdt of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. Insight is slated to drop a lander on Mars in September 2016 to begin its two-year scientific mission.

The lander will carry four instruments, which will determine Mars' rotation axis and measure the seismic waves and heat flowing through and from the planet's interior. The craft will also sport a robotic arm and two cameras, researchers said.

InSight builds on technology used in NASA's Phoenix lander mission, which confirmed the presence of subsurface water ice near the Martian north pole in 2008. This heritage helped convince NASA that InSight could stay within its relatively low budget, officials said.

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