NASA’s InSight lander to study interior of Mars
NASA’s next robotic mission to Mars, a lander called InSight, is on schedule to launch next May from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. InSight will be the first interplanetary mission launched from the West Coast of the United States. Lockheed Martin Space Systems is currently testing and assembling the spacecraft in a cleanroom facility near Denver, Colorado. “Our team resumed system-level integration and test activities last month,” said Stu Spath, spacecraft program manager at Lockheed Martin. “The lander is completed and instruments have been integrated onto it so that we can complete the final spacecraft testing including acoustics, instrument deployments and thermal balance tests.”
InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) will be the first NASA mission to focus on studying the interior of Mars. Data gathered by the lander will increase understanding of how rocky planets, including the Earth, are formed.
“Because the interior of Mars has churned much less than Earth’s in the past three billion years, Mars likely preserves evidence about rocky planets’ infancy better than our home planet does,” said InSight Principal Investigator Bruce Banerdt of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, California.
No matter which day the mission launches during the five-week window beginning on May 5, 2018, the spacecraft will reach Mars the day after Thanksgiving in 2018. The Insight stationary lander will set down near the Martian equator. Including its two solar panels that will unfold like paper fans, the lander spans about 20 feet (6 meters). A few weeks after landing, Insight will place its two main science instruments onto the Martian surface using a robotic arm. Those two instruments are the following:
- A seismometer, provided by France’s space agency, CNES, with collaboration from the United States, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and Germany. Shielded from the wind and sensitive enough to detect ground movements half the diameter of a hydrogen atom, the instrument will record seismic waves from “marsquakes” or meteor impacts that will provide information about the interior layers of the planet.
- A heat probe supplied by the German Aerospace Center, DLR, with a self-hammering mechanism from Poland. The probe will hammer itself to a depth of 10 feet (3 meters) or more to measure the amount of energy coming from the planet’s interior.
Another experiment will use radio transmissions between Earth and Mars to measure perturbations in how Mars rotates on its axis, which will provide clues about the size of the planet’s core.
InSight’s science payload is also on schedule for the May 2018 launch. The mission was originally slated to launch in March 2016, but it was postponed due to a leak into a metal container designed to maintain near-vacuum conditions around the seismometer’s main sensors. A redesigned vacuum container was built and tested, then combined with the seismometer’s other components and retested. The instrument was delivered to the Lockheed Martin spacecraft facility in July and has been installed on the lander.
“We have fixed the problem we had two years ago, and we are eagerly preparing for launch,” said InSight Project Manager Tom Hoffman of JPL
Jim Sharkey is a lab assistant, writer and general science enthusiast who grew up in Enid, Oklahoma, the hometown of Skylab and Shuttle astronaut Owen K. Garriott. As a young Star Trek fan he participated in the letter-writing campaign which resulted in the space shuttle prototype being named Enterprise. While his academic studies have ranged from psychology and archaeology to biology, he has never lost his passion for space exploration. Jim began blogging about science, science fiction and futurism in 2004. Jim resides in the San Francisco Bay area and has attended NASA Socials for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover landing and the NASA LADEE lunar orbiter launch.