Following last week’s dramatic exploits of Rosetta’s Philae lander on the surface of a comet, another lander – destined for the surface of Mars – is being born at Lockheed Martin. NASA’s InSight Mars lander spacecraft has started its assembly, test and launch operations (ATLO) phase – ahead of its March, 2016 launch atop of an Atlas V rocket.
NASA’s InSight mission will record the first-ever measurements of the interior of the red planet, providing scientists back on Earth with unprecedented detail into the evolution of Mars and other terrestrial planets.
The US Space Agency is the dominant player in the realm of robotic Mars exploration, with a string of mission successes already achieved, both in the Martian orbit and on the surface of the Red Planet.
The flagship effort to send humans to Mars is, however, still a distant dream – with undefined plans citing a target of the mid-2030s as part of an evolving plan utilizing the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion.
While human exploration remains the holy grail of space flight, the excitement surrounding robotic missions is currently at an all-time high, following the eventful successes achieved by Rosetta’s plucky little lander, Philae.
However, the majority of robotic missions are deemed to be precursors, ahead of eventually sending humans back out into deep space – not least when it involves Mars.
Although that aspiration is not shared by everyone in the space flight community, partly due to the immense cost of human space flight curtailing expenditure on robotic missions, Dr. John Grunsfeld, Associate Administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate is one of many who believe in the “synergistic collaboration between science and human space flight.”
While it is hoped humans will one day set foot on the surface of Mars, InSight will be taking a keen interest in what lies beneath.
This Discovery-class mission holds a large amount of synergy with NASA’s Phoenix lander, which successfully touched down near Mars’ northern polar ice cap in 2008.
The three-legged landing platform will be aiming for an equatorial landing site, utilizing an array of international scientific instruments for a much greater period of time when compared to Phoenix.
This will include the observation of “marsquakes” via seismic probes, a hammer that will be capable of delving five meters into the Martian surface in order to take subterranean temperature readings, and a radiometer that will measure surface temperatures at the landing site.
It will also sport the Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment (RISE), designed to calculate the precession, or wobble, of Mars’ axis and provide clues to Mars’ internal structure.
Its mission is classed as a terrestrial planet explorer that 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.
“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,” noted 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.”
Development of the Mars-bound spacecraft is under the stewardship of Lockheed Martin. Engineers have now entered what is known as the ATLO phase of processing.
This follows recent flow milestones, such as propulsion proof and leak testing, that took place on October 31.
Following the testing, the lander was moved to another clean room for the ATLO phase of the flow.
ATLO is when assembly of the spacecraft starts, moves through environmental testing and concludes with its launch.
Over the next six months, technicians will install subsystems such as avionics, power, telecom, mechanisms, thermal systems, and guidance, navigation and control. Science instruments will also be delivered by the mission partners to Lockheed Martin for integration with the spacecraft.
In addition to the lander, the spacecraft’s protective aeroshell capsule and cruise stage – which provides communications, power and propellant during the journey to Mars – are also undergoing assembly and testing alongside the lander.
Once the spacecraft has been fully assembled, it will undergo rigorous environmental testing in the summer of 2015.
Eventually, the spacecraft will enter final processing, prior to its shipping to the launch site for eventual integration with the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V, that will be flying in her 401 configuration.
(Images: via NASA, Lockheed Martin and L2 Artist Nathan Koga’s SpaceX BFR rendering – Click here for full resolution F9, F9-R, FH and BFR renderings and more)
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