NASA begins testing Mars lander in preparation for next mission to Red Planet: UF geologist is part of the international team behind it
Testing is underway on NASA’s next mission on the journey to Mars, a stationary lander scheduled to launch in March 2016 backed by an international team that includes a University of Florida researcher.
The lander is called InSight, an abbreviation for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport. It 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 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 at the agency's headquarters in Washington. "Together, humans and robotics will pioneer Mars and the solar system."
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.
It also includes UF geological sciences assistant professor Mark Panning, whose role during the 18 months of planning for the mission was to demonstrate by testing here on Earth that analyzing data from a single seismic station would provide a good one-dimensional model of Mars.
Panning also has been involved in science software planning for the mission. He is a co-lead investigator, along with Philippe Lognonne of IPG Paris and Antoine Mocquet of Universite de Nantes, for the Mars Structure Service, which will be responsible for rapidly updating models of the Martian interior as new data becomes available after the spacecraft lands in September 2016.
"Nearly everything that we know about the interior of the Earth comes from geophysical measurements,” Panning said. “I was extremely excited to visit Lockheed Martin Space Systems two weeks ago to see the nearly assembled InSight lander that will deliver the instruments that will allow us to make those same kind of discoveries about the interior structure of Mars.”
During the environmental testing phase at Lockheed Martin's Space Systems facility near Denver, 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 first will be a thermal vacuum test in the spacecraft's "cruise" configuration, which will be used during its seven-month journey to Mars. In the cruise configuration, the lander is stowed inside an aeroshell capsule and the spacecraft's cruise stage – for power, communications, course corrections and other functions on the way to Mars – is fastened to the capsule.
"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, Denver. "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.
The mission's science team includes U.S. and international co-investigators from universities, industry and government agencies.
"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."
JPL manages InSight for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. InSight is part of NASA's Discovery Program, managed by the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company built the lander.
For addition information about the mission, visit:
More information about NASA's journey to Mars is available online at:
Dwayne Brown, Headquarters, Washington, 202-358-1726, firstname.lastname@example.org
Guy Webster, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., 818-354-6278, email@example.com