Lockheed Martin Space Systems will rely on the spacecraft heritage of the 2008 Phoenix mission to construct NASA's newest Discovery mission, a geology expedition to probe as much as 16 ft. beneath the surface of Mars.

Called InSight—Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations—the spacecraft will be launched by a Delta II-class vehicle in March 2016 and is to land on the Elysium Planitia, a large flat area near Mars' equator, the following September.

It has a nominal surface operating life of 720 days and is expected to return more than 29 GB of data about Martian geology in one planet year—the equivalent of 1.88 Earth years. Not counting the launcher, which has yet to be selected, and related services, the mission cost has been pegged at $425 million in 2010 dollars.

InSight carries two main instruments: A seismometer from the French Space Agency CNES, and a heat flow probe from the German Space Agency DLR. There also is a tracking instrument from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is managing the mission. It uses InSight's communications system to measure the planet's “wobble” as it rotates. A camera will provide mission managers with a 3-D view of the ground around InSight to help them place its seismometer and heat probe.

NASA describes the mission as if InSight was making a doctor's examination of the planet. Its seismometer will take the pulse, the heat probe will record the temperature and the tracker will measure reflexes.

This method is being used because Mars is the best specimen for understanding the evolution of the rocky planets in the Solar System, says Principal Investigator Bruce Banerdt.

The InSight contract award, announced last week, came as the car-sized rover Curiosity was making its first moves to explore the Martian surface after completing the most complex landing sequence ever attempted on the planet. At about 770 lb., InSight has less than half the mass of Curiosity (1,982 lb.), so its descent through the thin Martian atmosphere will be far more manageable. The same aeroshell and parachute braking system used by Phoenix will be deployed.

Also built by Lockheed Martin, Phoenix determined that water ice exists near the surface of Mars' north pole. That mission lasted only 7 months, not the 3.7 years expected for InSight. Lockheed Martin Mission Systems Manager Stacy Weinstein-Weiss says InSight benefits by being a far simpler mission given its limited instrument package and immobility.

Lockheed Martin Program Manager Stu Sparth says the goal is a “low risk” mission. The company's Denver facility will rely on the Mars 01 lander deck, a prototype for Phoenix, as InSight's platform. That plan means Lockheed Martin has an already qualified structure. As a result, “we have a really big head start,” Weinstein-Weiss says.

InSight's avionics will be a copy of what Lockheed Martin built for the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (Maven) orbiter, which is set for launch late next year. It is to be placed into an orbit around Mars in the fall of 2014. A sister project of Phoenix, Maven will study the Martian atmosphere.

InSight's drill for penetrating the Martian soil has been tested in the desert around Mojave, Calif. Called the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3), it relies on a 14-in.-long, hollowed-out stake dubbed the Tractor Mole to break the surface. The Tractor Mole uses an internal hammer that strikes a worm-drive penetrator. As it rises and falls, the stake is driven into the soil, dragging a tether behind it. For a NASA web video on the InSight mission, go to www.jpl.nasa.gov/video/index.cfm?id=1121.