NASA’s next Mars lander—the InSight spacecraft—has reached the start of its critical final assembly operations phase known as ATLO, or assembly, test, and launch operations.
InSight’s construction is on track for its scheduled departure from Earth to the Red Planet in March 2016.
InSight, which stands for Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, is a stationary lander. The vehicle will join NASA’s current pair of surface explorers, Curiosity and Opportunity, which in contrast are mobile rovers. It will touch down near the Martian equator in late 2016 near Curiosity.
The three-legged InSight lander will conduct an unprecedented mission to investigate the Red Planet’s deep interior, elucidating the nature and evolution of the Martian core, measuring heat flow, and sensing for “Marsquakes.”
The $425-million solar-powered lander, its aeroshell, and cruise stage are all being fabricated by prime contractor Lockheed Martin in a Denver, Colo., clean room.
“Reaching this stage that we call ATLO is a critical milestone,” said InSight Project Manager Tom Hoffman at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
“This is a very satisfying point of the mission as we transition from many teams working on their individual elements to integrating these elements into a functioning system. The subsystems are coming from all over the globe, and the ATLO team works to integrate them into the flight vehicle. We will then move rapidly to rigorous testing when the spacecraft has been assembled, and then to the launch preparations.”
The lander will really take shape over the next six months, as Lockheed Martin technicians add the probes assorted subsystems including avionics, power, telecomm, mechanisms, thermal systems, and navigation systems. They installed the propulsion system onto the framework earlier this year.
The cruise stage assembly work includes adding communications systems, solar power arrays, and thrusters to navigate the spacecraft on the months’-long interplanetary journey to the Red Planet.
Liftoff of InSight atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket is scheduled for March 2016 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. This marks NASA’s first-ever interplanetary mission to launch from California.
The vehicle design is based on the proven platform of NASA’s three-legged Phoenix Mars probe—also built by Lockheed Martin—which successfully touched down on the planet’s frigid northern polar regions in 2008 in search of potential habitats for life.
InSight is an international science mission and a near duplicate of the Phoenix spacecraft, said Bruce Banerdt, InSight Principal Investigator of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, Calif.
However, the probe will incorporate some significant modifications to modernize the design based on advances developed for NASA’s new MAVEN Mars orbiter which only recently achieved orbit in September 2014.
“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,” said 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.”
The life span, science goals, and instrument suite on InSight are also completely different from Phoenix.
For example, the planned mission duration is 720 days—about two years at the Red Planet’s sunny equator versus 90 days for Phoenix in the bitterly cold Martian arctic region.
Furthermore, InSight is one of NASA’s Discovery class missions, like the Dawn Asteroid Orbiter for example. It also includes very significant international science participation.
InSight’s purpose is to answer one of science’s most fundamental questions: What were the processes that shaped how the planets were created four billion years ago, especially the terrestrial class planets like Earth?
InSight will mine the deepest hole yet into Mars with a self-hammering “mole,” to a depth of 3 to 5 meters, and unveil the nature of the mysterious deep interior and central core of the Red Planet.
Therefore, InSight will penetrate far deeper than Phoenix ever could in order to investigate how Earth-like planets formed and developed their layered inner structure of core, mantle, and crust by deploying never-before-used instruments onto the Martian surface to collect information about those interior zones.
InSight also possesses a robotic arm like Phoenix that’s critical to achieving its science goals.
“The robotic arm is similar (but not identical) to the Phoenix arm,” Banerdt explained.
In addition to NASA, it is funded by several European national space agency’s and countries. Germany and France are providing InSight’s two main science instruments: HP3 and SEIS through the Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR, or German Space Agency) and the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES).
The Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) will be built by CNES in partnership with DLR and the space agency’s of Switzerland and the United Kingdom. It will measure waves of ground motion carried through the interior of the planet, from “marsquakes” and meteor impacts.
The Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3), from DLR, will measure heat coming toward the surface from the planet’s interior.
The robotic arm will deploy the pair of surface and burrowing instruments contributed by France and Germany to suitable locations based on images taken by the lander’s pair of cameras.
InSight’s robotic arm will place the seismometer on the surface and then place a protective covering over it to minimize effects of wind and temperature on the sensitive instrument. The arm will also put the heat-flow probe in position to hammer itself into the ground to a depth of 3 to 5 yards, or meters, according to a NASA description.
The third experiment, named RISE (Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment), is to be provided by JPL and will use the spacecraft communication system and a radio link to NASA’s Deep Space Network antennas on Earth to precisely measure a wobble in Mars’ planetary rotation that could reveal whether Mars has a molten or solid core, and elucidate clues to its interior structure and composition.
Stay tuned here for continuing developments.
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