NASA announced plans Tuesday for a mission to explore the interior of Mars, passing over two finalist proposals from Maryland institutions for the space agency's next relatively low-cost space mission.
InSight, a project of the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab in California, is set to launch in 2016 with the goal of examining Mars' core and crust to help scientists understand how planets form and evolve.
NASA selected the mission instead of a proposal by the University of Maryland, College Park to study a comet and another from a Laytonsville company to explore Saturn's largest moon. Each project was to cost a maximum of $425 million.
The mission is part of a new era of cheaper and smaller missions for NASA. The decision to fund the Mars mission follows the successful landing this month of the Mars rover Curiosity, another project of the Jet Propulsion Lab.
A team led by Jessica Sunshine, a planetary scientist at the University of Maryland, was vying to send a spacecraft to be known as the Comet Hopper in 2021 to "hop" on and off a comet three-quarters of a mile wide as it hurtled toward the sun.
University research officials still have hope for their comet studies.
"The research we're engaged in is definitely still valued by NASA," said Ted Knight, director of research communications at the university. "We still have great expertise in this area and maybe hope for future opportunities."
The other project, led by Ellen Stofan at Proxemy Research in Laytonsville, would have sent the Titan Mare Explorer to Titan, Saturn's largest moon, to look for signs of chemicals that could predate life.
"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," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement. "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."
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