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NASA to launch new mission to Mars to probe below the crust (+video)

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Does Mars have active tectonics today? "We just don't know," says John Grunsfeld, NASA's associate administrator for the agency's science-mission directorate.

This mission falls under the agency's Discovery program, which focuses on relatively low-cost missions whose hardware costs are capped at $425 million. Curiosity, by contrast, is part of the NASA's Mars Exploration Program. And the cost of its mission is estimated at $2.5 billion.

Despite it's relatively low cost, InSight aims to answer questions planetary scientists have been asking about the Red Planet for decades, Dr. Grunsfeld explained during the briefing.

"We're very confident that this will produce exciting science," Grunsfeld said.

The mission beat two other finalists for this round of Discovery missions. A proposed Comet Hopper mission would put a lander on comet 46P/Wirtanen, where it would study the comet's composition and track changes in its nucleus as it moves through its orbit. The lander would have included thrusters that would allow it to "hop" from one location on the nucleus to another. Another mission would have essentially sent a high-tech buoy to a vast methane sea on Saturn's moon Titan to study its composition and its interaction with the atmosphere.

All contained compelling science, Grunsefeld said. But InSight was the only one that project reviewers inside and outside NASA felt stood the best chance of coming in at or under the Discovery program's $425 million cost cap, excluding launch costs, and within the tight schedule the program demands.

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