Two weeks after the successful landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars, NASA has said it will send another robot on the same journey in 2016.
Its mission will be to probe below the surface of the Red Planet and try to learn more about the evolution of rocky planets.
Named InSight, the new robot will not be mobile, unlike Curiosity. However, it has been conceived, and will be built at the same place as its predecessor - NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. InSight will also cost a mere $425 million versus $2.5 billion for Curiosity.
Beneath the surface
After its planned landing in September 2016, InSight will drill into “the interior of Mars to discover why the Red Planet has evolved so dramatically differently from Earth,” NASA explained.
“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,” said the space agency’s Administrator Charles Bolden.
Insight’s mission will also help determine whether the core of Mars is liquid or solid and why its surface is not composed of moving tectonic plates like the Earth.
Curiosity rolls out ChemCam
Meanwhile, back on Mars, Curiosity continues its work. The rover is using its ChemCam (Chemistry and Camera Instrument) composed of a laser, a telescope and a video camera. This revolutionary tool allows Curiosity to do a first analysis of the rocks and ground around it. While the laser beam zaps its target for 10 seconds, the scientists look for changes in the rock’s composition, which can give clues to the existence of other chemical elements under its surface.
“It’s very encouraging. We can expect important scientific discoveries with ChemCam analysing several thousand targets during the next two years,” said Sylvestre Maurice, who is the Deputy Principal Investigator for ChemCam at the Astrophysics and Planetary Science Research Laboratory in Toulouse, France.
Quite an armful
On Monday, the robot also deployed its 2.1 metre-long remote-controlled arm for the first time since the landing. The arm is equipped with a drill, a video camera, a spectrometer and tools to crush and filter samples.
“We have had to sit tight for the first two weeks since landing, while other parts of the rover were checked out, so to see the arm extended in these images is a huge moment for us,” said Matt Robinson, lead engineer at JPL for Curiosity’s robotic arm testing and operations.
“The arm is how we are going to get samples into the laboratory instruments and how we place other instruments onto surface targets,” he noted. Several weeks of preliminary tests will nonetheless be necessary before the arm can grab its first sample, NASA said.