Lockheed Martin begins Insight Mars lander final assembly

Technicians at Lockheed Martin prepare the InSight Mars lander for propulsion proof and leak testing

At some point in every project, you stop unpacking the parts and start putting them together. What's true for flat-pack furniture is also true for spacecraft, so Lockheed Martin has begun the Assembly, Test and Launch Operations (ATLO) phase of NASA's INterior exploration using Seismic investigations, geodesy and heat transport (InSight) Mars lander project. Scheduled to launch in 2016, the unmanned InSight probe will be the first deep-drilling mission sent to the Red Planet.

According to Lockheed, the start of ATLO will see the lander being assembled over the next few months. This will include the installation of experiments in the main chassis, along with avionics, power, telecommunication, thermal, guidance, navigation, and control systems. This will be followed by extensive environmental testing before final vehicle assembly and launching.

InSight is scheduled to be launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California in March 2016, the first planetary mission to launch from the US west coast. The stationary lander is based on NASA’s Phoenix lander, which set down at the Martian North Pole in 2008, and is designed for a 720-day primary mission near the Martian equator. It has a robotic arm for placing instruments, including hammering a heat-flow meter up to 15 ft (4.5 m) into the ground. Its purpose is not only to study Mars, but also to gain insights into the formation of rocky planets in the inner Solar System.

Along with preparing the lander, the ATLO will include assembling and testing the cruise stage, which will deliver the lander to Mars, and the aeroshell designed to protect it as it enters the Martian atmosphere.

"The InSight mission is a mix of tried-and-true and new-and-exciting. The spacecraft has a lot of heritage from Phoenix and even back to the Viking landers, but the science has never been done before at Mars," says Stu Spath, InSight program manager at Lockheed Martin Space Systems. "Physically, InSight looks very much like the Phoenix lander we built, but most of the electronic components are similar to what is currently flying on the MAVEN spacecraft."

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