NASA has begun a comprehensive series of tests for its Mars Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) lander. Once on the Red Planet, the lander will operate as a stationary science platform, attempting to answer a plethora of questions regarding the interior structure of Mars, and hopefully granting us some of the information needed to make a manned mission to the Red Planet in the 2030s a reality.
InSight is slated for launch in March 2016, and is expected to touch down on Mars in September of the same year. Once on the ground (hopefully) in one piece, the lander will use an advanced scientific suite to shed light on how rocky planets – such as our own – came to form and subsequently evolve.
"The assembly of InSight went very well and now it's time to see how it performs," states InSight program manager at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Stu Spath. "The environmental testing regimen is designed to wring out any issues with the spacecraft so we can resolve them while it's here on Earth. This phase takes nearly as long as assembly, but we want to make sure we deliver a vehicle to NASA that will perform as expected in extreme environments."
In order to make sure that InSight is prepared for the journey and subsequent operational demands, NASA will minutely test every aspect of the lander in order to determine if it could survive the rigors of deep space and the harsh climate of Mars over the coming seven months.
To this end, the lander will be subjected to extreme temperatures, zero air pressure, and vacuum conditions. During the environmental phase of the testing, the lander will be placed in its "cruise configuration." In this configuration, InSight is stowed in an aeroshell capsule, which is designed to protect the delicate explorer over the course of its six-month journey to Mars.
Furthermore, the lander will be subjected to extreme stress in the form of a vibration test. This is a vital stepping stone if engineers are to ascertain whether InSight's systems can survive the punishing conditions associated with launch and re-entry into the Martian atmosphere.
With any luck, NASA scientists will be successful in working out any kinks in the design of the spacecraft while it is still on Earth, allowing InSight to perform its mission flawlessly upon reaching the Red Planet.