NASA’s InSight Mars lander on track for March 2016 launch

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This artist’s concept depicts the stationary NASA Mars lander known by the acronym InSight at work studying the interior of Mars. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech Enlarge

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 a 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

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