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NASA's next mission: Probing Red Planet's core

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NASA's next mission will land a probe on Mars in 2016 to study why the Red Planet went down a different evolutionary path than Earth did, the agency has announced.

NASA's next mission will land a probe on Mars in 2016 to study why the Red Planet went down a different evolutionary path than Earth did, the agency has announced.

The new mission, called InSight, is aimed at determining whether Mars' core is solid or liquid like Earth's, and why the crust of the Red Planet is not divided into tectonic plates that drift like our planet's surface. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said:

"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.

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."

The project is part of the first round of NASA's "Discovery" missions. The InSight robot will be a static lander, carrying tools to investigate the planet's core. However, the project is low-budget, capping at $425m -- although the cost of launching the rocket into space is not included.

The robot will be completing a number of functions. The boundaries between tectonic plates will be mapped through seismic experiments, a thermal probe will determine Mars' temperature and how it cools, and another sensor is focused on finding out which degree the planet turns at on its axis.

Through collecting all this information, scientists hope that InSight will tell us more about the internal state of Mars and its changes through time.

John Grunsfeld, head of NASA's science division, said:

"This is science that has been compelling for many years. Seismology, for instance, is the standard method by which we've learned to understand the interior of the Earth -- and we have no such knowledge for Mars.

This has been something the principal investigator of this mission has been trying to get to Mars for nearly three decades, and so I'm really thrilled that this is now at a mature stage where he has been able to propose something that fits within the cost and schedule constraints of the Discovery programme."

In comparison, the Curiosity Rover, which landed on the planet only a few weeks ago, cost $2.5bn.

Image credit: NASA

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Charlie Osborne

Contributing Editor

Charlie Osborne is a freelance journalist and photographer based in London. In addition to SmartPlanet, she also writes for business technology website ZDNet and consumer technology site CNET. She holds a degree in medical anthropology from the University of Kent. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure