‘More than a Mars mission’ – NASA begins testing InSight lander for 2016 trip

Mars Interior. Artist rendition of the formation of rocky bodies in the solar system - how they form and differentiate and evolve into terrestrial planets.
(Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
NASA says it’s begun testing the stationary lander spacecraft it plans to send to Mars in 10 months to help scientists understand Earth’s red neighbor and hopefully learn more about rock-based planets.

The space agency said on Wednesday this week that testing is underway on the Lockheed Martin-made lander it calls InSight—an abbreviation for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport.

Currently, NASA intends on launching InSight from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California in March 2016 and having the spacecraft land on the Red Planet around six months later.

Turning the InSight Lander's Science Deck (Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Lockheed Martin)

According to the agency, the lander is equipped with an array of sophisticated scientific tools intended to study the crust, mantle and core of Mars. Ideally, NASA says the data will help scientists figure out the secrets of Mars’ interior structure by “detecting the fingerprints of the processes of terrestrial planet formation.”

InSight, NASA says, “is more than a Mars mission-- it is a terrestrial planet explorer that will address one of the most fundamental issues of planetary and solar system science - understanding the processes that shaped the rocky planets of the inner solar system (including Earth) more than four billion years ago.”

InSight Cruise Stage and Lander in Assembly (Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Lockheed Martin)

The more scientists learn about Mars, the better they can prepare to someday send an astronaut on the 140 million-mile journey. As it stands now, NASA hopes to accomplish as much sometime in the 2030s.

Among the tools outfitted on the car-sized InSight are a probe that will be used to measure the planet’s seismic activity and heat flow, NASA said. Additionally, the scientists intend on deploying two small satellites along with the lander that will transmit data from InSight back to Earth.

Mars Interior. Artist's concept of the interior of Mars shows a hot liquid core that is about one-half the radius of the planet. (Credit: JPL / NASA)

"Today, our robotic scientific explorers are paving the way, making great progress on the journey to Mars," Jim Green, the director of NASA's Planetary Science Division, said in a statement. "Together, humans and robotics will pioneer Mars and the solar system."

"The assembly of InSight went very well and now it's time to see how it performs," added Stu Spath, the InSight program manager for Lockheed. "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."

Artist's Concept of InSight Lander on Mars (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Last month, a report revealed that Curiosity, a roving spacecraft that’s been conducting tests on Mars since 2012, determined that the presence of liquid brine beneath the planet’s surface contradicted previous theories that the Martian atmosphere is too arid and cold to host water.