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JPL begins work on two new missions to Mars

The NASA facility is leading two upcoming missions: A lander that will explore Mars' core in 2016 and a rover, modeled after Curiosity, that will launch in 2020.

May 22, 2013|By Tiffany Kelly, tiffany.kelly@latimes.com

Less than a year after the rover Curiosity's successful landing on Mars, scientists and engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory are at work on two new missions to the Red Planet.

The space agency last year announced that a new lander and rover would join Curiosity and fellow rover Opportunity on Mars. The InSight mission will launch a lander in 2016 that will explore the planet's core, while a new rover, which will be similar to Curiosity both in look and design, is set to launch in 2020.

Scientists at the La Cañada Flintridge facility recently demonstrated how the lander would measure the heat flow of the planet with an instrument that is designed to probe five meters below ground. With a firm strike every three seconds, the long cylinder model with a cone tip, called a mole, gives off the sound of an ax hitting a hard surface.

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"We call it a self-hammering nail," said Troy Hudson, a co-investigator for the mission who previously worked on the Phoenix Mars lander.

But each strike will only get the instrument less than a millimeter down into the surface of the planet, he said. It will take thousands of tiny strikes to hit science gold. Once the instrument has been deployed to a depth of five meters, it will send back data for at least one Martian year to the lander through an attached heat-sensor-packed tether.

Scientists at JPL are currently testing the instrument's ability to survive Mars' internal temperature with a geothermal test bed, which uses sand from the Mojave Desert.

Along with the mole, the lander will be armed with a seismometer and radio tracking device, all designed to answer questions about how Mars formed, the amount of heat that radiates from its core, and its crustal thickness. The spacecraft will land in an area on Mars blanketed with several large volcanoes, called Elysium Planitia.

The mission could also shed light on how other rocky planets, including our own, are created.

"People have been excited to see rovers go to really interesting places for the geology, but we're not going there for the surface," said Sue Smrekar, InSight's deputy principal investigator. "We're going for the interior and we're going not just to learn about Mars, but to learn about how bodies form and evolve overall."

JPL is managing the mission, which is a collaboration with scientists and engineers from around the world. Lockheed Martin is developing the spacecraft and the German Aerospace Center (DLR) is building the mole.

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