NASA's next mission to Mars is in a testing phase as the agency preps for a stationary lander to launch in March 2016.
InSight, an abbreviation for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, is about the size of a car and will be the first mission devoted to understanding the interior structure of the Red Planet. Examining the planet's deep interior could reveal clues about how all rocky planets, including Earth, formed and evolved.
The current testing will help ensure InSight can operate in and survive deep space travel and the harsh conditions of the Martian surface. The spacecraft will lift off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, and land on Mars about six months later.
The technical capabilities and knowledge gained from Insight, and other Mars missions, are crucial to NASA's journey to Mars, which includes sending astronauts to the Red Planet in the 2030s.
"Today, our robotic scientific explorers are paving the way, making great progress on the journey to Mars," said Jim Green, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division, according to a press release. "Together, humans and robotics will pioneer Mars and the solar system."
During the environmental testing phase, the lander will be exposed to extreme temperatures, vacuum conditions of nearly zero air pressure simulating interplanetary space and a battery of other tests over the next seven months. "The assembly of InSight went very well and now it's time to see how it performs," said Stu Spath, InSight program manager at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver, Colo. "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."
Other tests include vibrations simulating launch and checking for electronic interference between different parts of the spacecraft. The testing phase concludes with a second thermal vacuum test in which the spacecraft is exposed to the temperatures and atmospheric pressures it will experience as it operates on the Martian surface.
"It's great to see the spacecraft put together in its launch configuration," said InSight Project Manager Tom Hoffman at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "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."