NASA has started testing its new Mars lander, which is scheduled to leave for the red planet in March of 2016. It's big, about the size of a car, and a-roving it will not go. It will stay where it lands because it has a very specific purpose. In terms of what we know about Mars, we have, quite literally, just scratched the surface, leaving us guessing about some very fundamental questions about the red planet. What is Mars' interior structure? What is the nature of the core? Does Mars have a crust with liquid magma beneath it? And even more fundamentally, how is Mars geologically like Earth and different? The new lander called InSight will drill into the martian surface in an attempt to fill in some of these crucial gaps in our knowledge.
If you've been following stories about NASA over the past few years, you may have noticed that almost every name they give to one of their missions or vehicles stands for something, so, here it is for InSight: Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport. Geodesy? A bit of shoehornery there, NASA? Well, in any case, InSight will, in fact, be doing some very important science. Here's the thing: The only planet that we're really drilled into so far is the Earth. So when InSight begins drilling into Mars and sending back data, in addition to providing crucial information about Mars, it will also, for the first time in history, give us something to compare the Earth to.
The current round of tests will put InSight through its paces to ensure that it can withstand the trip to Mars, the landing there, and the harsh conditions the lander will face on the martian surface, all while remaining operational. NASA engineers want to make sure that any faults with the craft are identified and fixed while it's still here on Earth. If anything goes wrong with InSight once it's on its way, the only possibility of a repair man coming by will be many years in the future, when the first manned missions arrive on Mars, in the the 2030's, or if either of the two private ventures to colonize Mars about ten years earlier actually happen.
This environmental testing on InSight will take place at Lockheed Martin's Space Systems facility near Denver. There InSight will be subjected to the sorts of extreme temperatures and vacuum conditions the lander will be exposed to during its journey through interplanetary space. Once InSight passes this set of tests, it will be subjected to several other batteries of them over the next seven months, including vibrations to simulate launch conditions, and checking for electronic interference between different parts of the spacecraft. The final set of tests will include a second thermal vacuum test to simulate the conditions the spacecraft will be exposed to on the Martian surface.
"It's great to see the spacecraft put together in its launch configuration," says Tom Hoffman, InSight Project Manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "Many teams from across the globe have worked long hours to get their elements of the system delivered for these tests. There still remains much work to do before we are ready for launch, but it is fantastic to get to this critical milestone."