For the past two months, engineers have been testing InSight's chops at a Lockheed Martin facility in Colorado. So far, things are going well, the company says. The contractor has decades of experience working with NASA and helps to operate two spacecraft that will relay information from InSight to orbit - Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter - and then to Earth. (MRO was recently repositioned in orbit to help with InSight's landing.)
Testing is divided into two phases - the launch and cruise to Mars, and then the complex entry, descent and landing. Luckily for InSight, a similar system was tested before when the Phoenix lander safely made it to the surface in August 2007. But there still are a number of steps to consider, including separating the lander from the cruise shield and safely deploying the legs InSight will rest on while sitting on the surface.
"After we touch down, the first most critical event is the deployment of the landing solar array," Stu Spath, InSight program manager at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co., told Discovery News. "It will unfurl into a nearly circular pattern and collect the solar energy for power. Then we'll test our most critical components and do a communications check to communicate properly (to Earth)."
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The first 80 sols (Martian days) of work will be busy. In the first 40 sols, InSight will test out its systems and place the seismometer on the surface. Then comes the drill. It will be slowly lowered below the surface a half-meter (1.6 feet) at a time. Investigators will then take a few days to send out a heat pulse to see how the environment around the drill is reacting. The mission goal is to get the drill at least 3 to 5 meters (10 to 16 feet) deep.