NASA’s InSight Mars lander on track for March 2016 launch
NASA’s next Mars mission – the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) lander – is taking shape for a March 2016 planned launch. The spacecraft, dedicated to investigating the Red Planet’s deep interior, is now fully assembled and on track for liftoff atop United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Atlas V 401 booster. The mission will be launched from the Space Launch Complex 3 (SLC-3) at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
“The lander has been fully assembled and is in its testing phase. We have finished all the major environments tests and are currently working through operational testing,” William “Bruce” Banerdt, InSight Principal Investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), told Astrowatch.net.
This series of tests will help ensure that InSight can operate during deep space travel and that it can survive the harsh conditions on Mars.
The testing includes exposing the lander to extreme temperatures and vacuum conditions of nearly zero air pressure simulating interplanetary space. Other tests feature vibrations – simulating launch – as well as checking for electronic interference between different parts of the spacecraft.
The lander is equipped with two main geophysical instruments that will investigate Mars’ interior structure and geological processes. The Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) will conduct precise measurements of quakes and other internal activity, while the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) will burrow up to 16 ft. (five meters) into the Martian subsurface – deeper than all previous drills and probes have gone. The spacecraft, built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, is based on NASA’s Phoenix mission that successfully studied ground ice near the north pole of Mars in 2008. It has a mass of 770 lbs. (349 kg) and is 18 ft. (5 meters) long when the solar panels are deployed.
By using the lander’s scientific payload, the scientists hope to learn valuable information about the evolution of rocky planets, studying processes that shaped Mars. They also plan to determine the present level of tectonic activity and meteorite impact rate on the Red Planet. NASA has predicted it will acquire more than 29 GB of seismic data during the first year of science operations.
“We expect to be able to determine the basic structure of the planet: the thickness and layering of the crust, the composition and stratification of the mantle, and the size, composition and state [solid vs. liquid] of the core. We will also measure the amount of heat escaping from the interior as well as the level of seismic activity and the rate of meteorite impacts,” Banerdt said.
Amidst some technical issues with the payload, the spacecraft is currently on track for launch in March of 2016.
“We are still on track for a launch next March, although we are still working on some technical issues with the payload,” Banerdt revealed.
InSight should be launched sometime between March 4–30, 2016. It should touch down on the Martian surface in September of 2016. It is designed to operate for about two years.
Tomasz Nowakowski is the owner of Astro Watch, one of the premier astronomy and science-related blogs on the internet. Nowakowski reached out to SpaceFlight Insider in an effort to have the two space-related websites collaborate. Nowakowski's generous offer was gratefully received with the two organizations now working to better relay important developments as they pertain to space exploration.