NASA Begins Testing of InSight Mars Lander for Launch in 2016

Testing of the solar arrays on the InSight lander at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin
Testing of the solar arrays on the InSight lander at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin

While Curiosity and Opportunity are still busy roving Mars, NASA has begun testing its next lander, InSight, scheduled to launch in March 2016. It will be the first mission devoted to studying the interior of the Red Planet, providing a unique and necessary addition to the Mars exploration program overall.

InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) will be a stationary lander instead of a rover, like the previous Mars Phoenix Lander, but it will help scientists understand how Mars, and other rocky planets like Earth, evolved geologically over time. The lander has now been assembled and is undergoing rigorous testing, which is required to show that the lander can survive the six-month journey to Mars as well as the harsh surface conditions on the planet itself.

“Today, our robotic scientific explorers are paving the way, making great progress on the journey to Mars,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. “Together, humans and robotics will pioneer Mars and the Solar System.”

Testing of the solar arrays on the InSight lander at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin
Testing of the solar arrays on the InSight lander at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin

As part of the environmental testing phase at the Lockheed Martin Space Systems facility near Denver, InSight will be exposed to extreme temperatures, vacuum conditions and other tests over the next seven months. A thermal vacuum test in the spacecraft’s “cruise” configuration, which will be used during its seven-month journey to Mars, is the first test. Other tests include vibrations to simulate the launch of the spacecraft, separation and deployment shock and looking for any electronic interference between various parts of the spacecraft. The final test is a second thermal vacuum test in which the spacecraft is exposed to the temperatures and atmospheric pressures it will experience on the Martian surface.

According to Stu Spath, InSight program manager at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver, “The assembly of InSight went very well and now it’s time to see how it performs. 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.”

InSight will help scientists study the interior of Mars in detail for the first time. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
InSight will help scientists study the interior of Mars in detail for the first time. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“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 (JPL), Pasadena, California. “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.”

While primarily a NASA mission, the science team includes U.S. and international co-investigators from universities, industry and government agencies.

From the Lockheed Martin press release:

“Scheduled to launch in March 2016 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, InSight is a robotic exploration mission that will record measurements of the interior of the Red Planet, giving scientists unprecedented detail into the evolution of Mars and other terrestrial planets. The InSight mission 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’s mission is a unique one, to learn more about what is inside Mars instead of just what is on the surface; it will look at the planet’s “vital signs”: “pulse” (seismology), “temperature” (heat flow probe) and “reflexes” (precision tracking). InSight will study the size, thickness, density and overall structure of Mars’ core, mantle and crust, as well as the rate at which heat escapes from the planet’s interior. This will help answer long-standing questions and provide more clues as to how Mars has changed over time, from a once wetter world to the cold, mostly dry desert we see today.

The InSight mission is led by JPL’s Bruce Banerdt. The Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales, France’s space agency, and the German Aerospace Center are each contributing a science instrument to the two-year scientific mission. InSight’s international science team includes researchers from Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Poland, Spain, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States.

More information about the InSight mission is available here.


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  1. It sounds as though there will be the opportunity to use some of the technology developed for the InSight mission for the Ocean Worlds Exploration Program, now that’s the taxpayer getting his moneys’ worth!

    • Why not? Because that would be preposterous, that’s why.

      Huygens was able to use Titan’s dense nitrogen atmosphere to aerodynamically decelerate using a thick heat shield, aeroshell and parachutes. Europa has NO sensible atmosphere, a landing there must be all propulsive which is much much more massive and expensive. A “Huygens-type” lander is only applicable to worlds with a dense atmosphere.

      I only correct you because it’s important to appreciate the difficulty and expense of exploring ocean worlds. Only Titan makes it “relatively” easy by having an atmosphere and benign radiation environment.

      • It should also be pointed out that the InSight lander (and similar systems that have landed on Mars in the past e.g. NASA’s Viking landers) uses a powered descent for only the very last leg of its trip. The vast majority of their “delta-v” on their way to the martian surface is provided by aerobraking and parachute. Since Europa has no sensible atmosphere, these mass-saving techniques are not available for Europan landings. They would need to be 100% propulsive with huge delta-v requirements (either from their carrier spacecraft or themselves or some combination). It should also be pointed out that we have thoroughly scouted InSight’s potential landing sites and know that it has a high probability of succeeding. We have absolutely no idea what to expect from Europa’s surface and cannot use the only other ice moon we have seen close up (i.e. Titan) to serve as a guide because it has completely different surface processes at work (especially, no atmosphere or fluvial type erosive processes). In the case of Huygens, its successful landing on the surface of Titan was not a primary mission objective and was only a very welcome bonus. Its design was optimized for its descent with the hope it would be sufficient to survive whatever it encountered on the Titanian surface (which was a completely open question at the time). If we were to design a Titan lander today optimized to land on its solid surface, it would probably not look anything like Huygens.

        • >We have absolutely no idea what to expect from Europa’s surface

          Oh Andrew, that’s technically true I suppose, but it’s entirely reasonable to expect a surface similar to say Chryse Planitia on Mars. Even if there is active tectonics on Europa (which is likely) the odds of landing on fresh, smooth ice is low. More likely, impacts have scattered “ice rock” ejecta all over the surface.

          Give me enough money, and I’m confident a refined version of Draper’s GENIE System being flight tested on Xombie, would stand a reasonable chance of making a successful landing on Europa (with the surface maps we have *now* BTW).

          Just write me a check for ~$2.5 billion and I’ll get started straight away.

          • Well, in the case of Chryse Planitia, we were dealing with a planet with a rocky crust with geologic processes similar to what we have here on Earth. In addition, we had 100-meter-class imagery available along with crude radar data and thermal inertia measurements allowing geologist to roughly match potential Viking landing sites to Earth analogs to mitigate the risks. Doing the same with Europa is a bit tougher since there are no true Earth analogs of Europa, high resolution imagery for site selection isn’t available, and the interpretation of the available radar data (at least to provide useful information on surface conditions) is a bit more problematic.

            But I think this really is besides the point. I feel we are both on the same page about including a lander on this Europa mission: it will greatly increases the cost of this mission. I also contend that it also increases the risk of Congress cancelling the mission a few years down the road because of the skyrocketing price tag.

            • >feel we are both on the same page
              Of course, we have similar backgrounds and interests, don’t bother explaining such things to me, but if it helps elucidate others, go for it.

              That landing on Europa comment is just a “thought experiment”. I shoulda made that clear.

              >no true Earth analogs of Europa.
              Yes but: earth’s polar pack ice is constantly held up as analog example. It’s true that you won’t find pack ice on earth littered with rock-hard ice impact ejecta, but on the other hand, the state of the art in aerospace engineering *has* advanced considerably since the early 1970s.

              “informed” thought experiments are of great value in science and engineering, I do it all the time in my spare brain clock cycles, otherwise I could be dangerous.

  2. She’s beautiful!

    Such an awesome fleet at mars. After the long long drought following the Viking landers, it’s fantastic to have so much data in the pipeline.

    For those interested: the ESA Schiaparelli lander was mated last month to the Trace Gas Orbiter for launch in January of 2016. Going on a Russian Proton, so keep your fingers crossed.

  3. I appreciate the corrections to my misguided thinking. If it were at all possible to piggy-back a lander, I now realize the complexity to do so. Wishful thinking, I guess, and I am very anxious to get an early glimpse of Europa’s surface.

    • The imaging team (and amateurs) will create synthetic “flyover” views of Europa’s surface. For instance, if you go to ESA’s Mars Express site, they have some particularly beautiful flyover views of mars.
      But, for that “standing on the surface of Europa” view, we will have to wait for many years.

    • Tom, your thinking was neither “misguided” or “wishful” my friend. Rep Culberson no doubt had access to, and availed himself of, the advice of some exceptionally intelligent advisers as to the feasibility of a Europa lander. Now, we are to believe that as Chairman of the House Committee making the decision either he acted upon the advice of those experts, or chose to totally ignore it. We all know that nothing garners votes back home like spending taxpayer dollars on a mission doomed to failure. Golly gee, some of those advisers and staffers might even be as knowledgeable about the subject of landing a spacecraft on a moon without an atmosphere as the posters on this site. There were those who were unequivocally certain that there was absolutely no way to land a ton of rover on the surface of Mars which has 1% of the density of our atmosphere. Yup, couldn’t be done … till the geniuses at NASA did it. Tom, you and I have read AmericaSpace for quite some time. We have seen conclusively that Jim Hillhouse, holder of at least one advanced degree in aerospace engineering, is an exceptionally bright fellow not prone to misguided or wishful thinking. I would give his opinion and analysis in favor of a Europa lander far more credence than many of the other posts I have read. As to “corrections”, “Because that would be preposterous, that’s why.” is not a correction, it’s a mean-spirited insult. Beat wishes Tom. With that, I will gladly grant the naysayers and haters the unmitigated delight of having the last word.

      • Karol, I do not think anyone here is claiming that a Europa lander mission is technologically impossible or that NASA and its contractors don’t have the brilliant people available to pull off such a feat or questioning Jim’s considerable technical expertise. The issues with including a lander are the additional risk and expense compared to the mission currently being proposed by NASA.

        Considering how little we actually know about the landscape of Europa and it properties on scales needed to chose a safe landing site, a landing now is a very risky proposition. Those risks can be minimized and a better lander mission designed after we have the data in hand from the currently proposed mission. As for the cost, the mission as currently proposed will cost on the order of a couple of billion dollars. Adding a lander to this mission and the changes required to the currently proposed flyby spacecraft to support this additional objective will definitely make this mission much more expensive and lengthen its development time. While there are members in the current Congress might support this more expensive and ambitious mission, a future Congress (and Administration) might not be as supportive a few years down the road especially if mission costs escalate (which they tend to do when risky elements are included) and Federal budget priorities change (which they also tend to do). This could lead to yet another cancellation with us back to square one trying to plan a more modest mission. Given these considerations, it can be argued that it might be wiser not to add a lander element to this current mission.

      • Sorry, but a “Huygens-type lander to Europa” is literally [preposterous] for the reasons I stated. Huygens was able to gently plop-down the surface of Europa due to the very dense atmosphere and Titan’s low gravity (less than our moon).

        “Preposterous” can be taken as a mean spirited insult if you wish, but sometimes a little insult is appropriate. We live in the age of the internet where google, Wikipedia and NASA’s public sites are a click away. People may invest a few minutes to look into a subject before going off to complain about NASA’s programs and congressional funding.

        I’m reminded of my favorite Physics professor whose retort to most of my questions was “that’s clearly obvious to the most casual observer”. Indeed.

        Look, it could be worse, Tom could ask about adding a lander to the “initial” Europa mission over at the tightly controlled unmannedspaceflight dot com:

        RULE 2.3 Before posting a question, use Google to attempt to answer it yourself. (If you find an answer and think other forum members may have the same question, please write a post that contains both the question and the answer you found.)

        (for Church) RULE 2.4 Do not rant. Repeating yourself makes your posts part of the forum noise. If you must rant, start your own blog (try Blogger or WordPress).

      • >were unequivocally certain that there was absolutely no way to land a ton of rover on the surface of Mars >which has 1% of the density of our atmosphere. Yup, couldn’t be done … till the geniuses at NASA did it

        Karol, that’s a strawman and a rather poor one at that. There were the usual objections to the cost of Viking (William Proxmire et al.) but no one claimed it “couldn’t be done”. At hypersonic speeds, the Martian atmosphere is thick as molasses (see Reynolds number) which lets let you scrub off your hyperbolic excess or orbital velocity (~7500 mph Viking).

        I can’t win here. I point out the extreme difficulty of landing a payload on the airless Europa, deep in Jupiter’s enormous gravity well and magnetosphere (radiation), and I’m pilloried.

        But, then if I assume money is no object and do a “thought experiment” where I claim we could [probably] put a lander on Europa using existing images and reasonable assumptions about the surface, I catch hell.

        Look, adding a lander to this mission would drive the cost into never-never land.

        In my youth, back on farm, I often heard “you’d bitch of they hung ya with a new rope”.
        Meaning, “shut up and enjoy what you’re lucky to have in the first place”.
        Now, in engineering we have the related adage “the perfect is the enemy of the good enough”.

        It’s a minor miracle at this time to get an (almost) new-start for a Europa reconnaissance mission, enjoy it!

        If the reconnaissance mission goes well, our knowledge of Europa will take a quantum leap. In meantime, technology will continue to advance, including ESA’s all-important Americium-241 fueled RTG program, laser communication and more affordable launch vehicles.

  4. At least the idea of attaching a lander to the Europa mission has generated much discussion and analysis. We need that kind of interest among the populace AND support by Congress to press forward with exploration.

  5. Is anyone still interested in this chain, or has it fallen off the radar screen?

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