NASA announced that it has selected the InSight Mars lander for its next Discovery mission. (Discovery missions are NASA’s lowest cost tier of science missions, such as Kepler, Dawn, Messenger, Mars Pathfinder, and more.) You may be thinking, “ANOTHER mission to Mars? What for?” Well, despite all the awesome science that Curiosity will do, it can’t tell us much about the deep interior of Mars, or what Mars’ seismic activity is like. The InSight lander will be a stationary robot much like the Phoenix lander. In addition to measuring seismic activity, it will deploy a probe that will drill deep below the surface to measure the flow of heat inside Mars. These measurements will help scientists understand how Mars formed and what happened in the past that changed the surface from one of flowing water (and possibly life) to the barren dry wasteland it is today. (Via Universe Today)

Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA/JPL

Curiosity completed its first set of driving maneuvers on Mars. This image was the first that showed the wheel tracks, confirming that the rover drove successfully. This was only a test of Curiosity’s driving systems, the first of several. Tests of every science instrument and every other system on the rover will continue for at least a month or so before they’ve established a solid baseline for how everything behaves now that it’s actually on Mars. Only then can the scientists begin run the real experiments the rover was designed to carry out. Science is sometimes very tedious and slow, but the results and knowledge gained is very much worth it.

Some fantastic news from NASA today: The astoundingly successful and productive Kepler Mission has been extended through 2016! This is a huge relief for space nerds like me who eagerly watch science news blogs for the next big news item from missions such as Kepler. As you may know, Kepler is a space telescope which looks for planets in other star systems. Most specifically, the mission is looking for earth-like planets in other star systems. The mission has already racked up over 1,000 potential planets, and I have absolutely no doubt that it will find and confirm the first true earth-twin in these next 4 years. There was a lot of concern over the future of the mission due to recent NASA budget cuts- many thought the mission might not get funding to extend it even till 2014, so getting funding till 2016 was actually a pleasant surprise. The funding will, however, be up for review again in 2014. Still, this is a huge relief because Kepler has already seen what could be earth-twins, we just have to wait for a second transit to occur to confirm the initial observation. Since these are truly earth-like planets, it takes them roughly one earth year to orbit their parent star. The major worry was the mission would be ended before a second transit could be observed to confirm the planets’ existence. Thankfully we no longer have to worry about that, and it’s only a matter of time before the holy grail of planet-hunting is found.

(Via Universe Today and Bad Astronomy)