Not content with dropping a six-wheeled rover onto the surface of the red planet via a rocket-powered sky hook, photographing the entire landing process from multiple angles, upgrading its firmware from 160 million miles away, driving the rover like a 3-D video game, and then firing a laser at a Martian rock, NASA now wants to send another probe that includes a drill for probing deep into the planet’s crust.
“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,” NASA administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement today.
The drill is not probing for water, oil, or Martian life — but it’s still pretty cool.
The new InSight lander is the latest in a series of relatively low-cost, high-payoff missions that NASA has been deploying. Starting in 1992, the agency’s Discovery-class missions have firm spending caps and often re-use technology from previous missions in order to keep costs down. That’s a big change from NASA’s earlier “spend what it takes” mentality, and it’s delivered real results in making the agency more flexible, more fiscally responsible, and more entrepreneurial. Indeed, scientific teams have to compete to get their projects approved by the Discovery program, which appears to have helped hone the missions before they even get the go-ahead. NASA considered 28 Discovery proposals in mid-2010, and selected just three for further analysis.
Of course, low-cost is a relative term when you’re talking about space missions: InSight’s cost is capped at $425 million in 2010 dollars, or enough to launch about 850 social-networking and grilled-cheese startups here in Silicon Valley.
InSight will be the 12th Discovery-class mission, after such standout missions as the Mars Pathfinder, Deep Impact, Lunar Prospector, and Genesis. It is scheduled to land on Mars in September, 2016.