By sending a multitasking, multi-capable geophysical lander to Mars next year, NASA intends and hopes to find answers to how that big ol’ rock planet was once formed. The lander is named InSight, which means “Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport”.
NASA plans on probing underneath the surface of the red planet to measure seismological activity, heat flow and other “vital signs”, to learn more about how terrestrial planets such as Earth and Mars became actual planets several billions of years ago.
InSight is not bigger than a car, and will head for Mars from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California in autumn this year. The trip is scheduled to last for six months, and this will be the first mission that is focused on researching the interior of the planet.
Since NASA also intends to send manned missions to Mars in the 2030’s, unmanned landers, probes and other spacecrafts going to Mars are vital to learn everything that humans might encounter when setting foot and making a living on an alien but hopefully friendly neighbor planet.
It’s not easy going there as a machine either, though: before taking off from California, the lander will go through rigorous tests, such as extreme temperature exposure, interplanetary space simulations with almost zero air pressure and thermal vacuum tests on different modules. The lander needs to put out with both the space conditions as well as the different extreme weather and atmospheric conditions on Mars.
While going through all mechanical and electronic features there are also vibration simulations and checks to find potential electronic interference between the spacecraft parts.
Not all companies can pull off a complex construction like this, and according to Stu Spath, InSight program manager at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver, quality must be allowed to take time: “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.”
People on Earth have gone to extreme lengths throughout history to explore places they haven’t learnt about yet, and seemingly, we’re not letting tiny things such as 40 million miles (56 million kilometers) of no air and – as of now – no going back, stop us from getting there.