Seeker Archives

NASA Begins Tests on Next Awesome Mars Lander: InSight

With its vast solar arrays on display at a Lockheed Martin Space Systems clean room in Denver, Colo., NASA's next mission to Mars stands proud.

With its vast solar arrays on display at a Lockheed Martin Space Systems clean room in Denver, Colo., NASA's next mission to Mars stands proud.

The size of a car, the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (or "InSight") mission is scheduled for launch to the Red Planet in March 2016. It will continue NASA's epic study of Mars, exposing some of the world's innermost secrets, revealing clues as to the planet's structure and origins.

NEWS: NASA's Next Mars Lander to Begin Construction

InSight will perform the ultimate planetary health check of sorts, something that has never been attempted in this much detail. Landing on Mars around six months after launching from California's Vandenburg Air Force Base, InSight will deploy a suite of instrumentation that will measure seismic activity (caused by "Marsquakes" and meteorite impacts), drill into the uppermost layers of Mars rock and even detect the flow of heat emanating from deep inside the planet's interior. Also, using radio antennae, the lander will hope to register Mars' tiny wobble, potentially revealing whether or not Mars has a liquid core, like Earth.

InSight is just the latest step in ultimately sending humans to Mars in the 2030s. An armada of robotic explorers are currently orbiting and roving on the Red Planet glimpsing into the planet's past, understand its current geology and habitable potential, and preparing humanity for, potentially, living on this alien world.

PHOTOS: Alien Robots That Left Their Mark on Mars

"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 NASA's headquarters in Washington. "Together, humans and robotics will pioneer Mars and the solar system."

The above photo shows a completed InSight lander that has a very similar configuration to NASA's successful Phoenix mission that set down on Mars' arctic region in 2008.

During the tests at Lockheed that are currently being carried out and will take several months to complete, the lander will be exposed to the extreme cold and vacuum the mission will experience during its cruise to Mars inside its capsule called an aeroshell. It will also undergo vibration tests, to accurately simulate the conditions at launch and landing, and be exposed to a simulated Martian environment so its performance can be assessed.

"The assembly of InSight went very well and now it's time to see how it performs," said InSight Program Manager Stu Spath, at Lockheed Martin. "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."

NEWS: Next Mars Lander Will Drill into the Red Planet

"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, Calif. "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."

For more information about InSight, check out NASA JPL's mission pages.

Engineers and technicians at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, run a test of deploying the solar arrays on NASA's InSight lander. Photo taken April 30, 2015.

The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera is the most powerful imager in orbit around Mars. Capable of resolving objects less than a meter wide on the surface of the Red Planet while attached to NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), HiRISE has brought us unparallelled views of Martian landscape, geology, active erosion processes and even our own surface missions.

After nearly 8 years of orbiting Mars, HiRISE has amassed a huge archive of observations and, in many cases, observations can be combined to provide a unique insight to the planet's topography -- an observation that can be difficult to make with a single top-down snapshot.

Therefore, the HiRISE team use "stereo pairs" of observations from different orbital passes (and therefore different viewing angles) of the same locations on the Martian surface. This can produce topographical maps of surface features accurate to within 10s of centimeters in height. These high resolution digital terrain models, or DTMs, provide an incredible scientific insight as well as constructing an aesthetically pleasing perspective of an otherwise "flat" vista. In all images a color spectrum of purple-white is used, where the purple/blue hues are the lowest lying land and the red/white hues are the highest. Here are some of our favorite DTM images.

Shown here are the stunning "moving dunes" of Nili Patera (catalog number: ESP_017762_1890)

Elevation range: 55 meters (purple/blue - lowest) to 275 meters (red/white - highest) above mean Mars surface elevation.

Source: http://www.uahirise.org/dtm/dtm.php?ID=ESP_017762_1890

DTMs can be very useful when trying to understand the morphology of craters on the Martian surface. This is Raga Crater, featuring very steep crater slopes in its interior (ESP_014011_1315).

Elevation range: 1,311 meters (purple/blue - lowest) to 1,966 meters (red/white - highest) above mean Mars surface elevation.

Source: http://www.uahirise.org/dtm/dtm.php?ID=PSP_006899_1330

This is one of the stereo pairs of images used to compose the DTM of Raga Crater (see previous slide). Although this HiRISE image provides incredible high-resolution imagery of the feature, there is little elevation data, something the DTM provides through its topographical color spectrum (ESP_014011_1315).

Source: http://www.uahirise.org/ESP_014011_1315

The rim of Endeavour Crater in Meridiani Planum. Since 2011, Mars rover Opportunity has been extensively studying the crater's rim, turning up exciting evidence of past water on the Martian surface. The HiRISE DTMs have played a key role in mapping the rover's drive in the region (ESP_018701_1775)

Elevation range: -1,695 meters (purple/blue - lowest) to -1,380 meters (red/white - highest) below mean Mars surface elevation.

Source: http://www.uahirise.org/dtm/dtm.php?ID=ESP_018701_1775

The barchan dunes on Mars can be monstrous structures. This example is nearly 300 meters high and features a steep slip face where there appear to be obvious signs of avalanches having taken place (PSP_006899_1330).

Elevation range: 1,031 meters (purple/blue - lowest) to 1,321 meters (red/white - highest) above mean Mars surface elevation.

Source: http://www.uahirise.org/dtm/dtm.php?ID=PSP_006899_1330

This may look like a shooting star cartoon, but it's actually an old impact crater plus ridge of dunes in Athabasca Valles. The "tail" of material is likely caused by prevailing winds shaping the landscape (PSP_002661_1895).

Elevation range: -2,611 meters (purple/blue - lowest) to -2,441 meters (red/white - highest) below mean Mars surface elevation.

Source: http://www.uahirise.org/dtm/dtm.php?ID=PSP_002661_1895

Victoria Crater in Meridiani Planum, a crater explored by Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity from September 2006 to August 2008 (PSP_001414_1780).

Elevation range: -1,453 meters (purple/blue - lowest) to -1,373 meters (red/white - highest) below mean Mars surface elevation.

Source: http://www.uahirise.org/dtm/dtm.php?ID=PSP_001414_1780

Small cones in an ancient volcanic region of mars, formed by molten lava flowing over ice or water (ESP_018747_2065).

Elevation range: -3,262 meters (purple/blue - lowest) to -3,196 meters (red/white - highest) below mean Mars surface elevation.

Source: http://www.uahirise.org/dtm/dtm.php?ID=ESP_018747_2065

A deep channel formed by the ancient flow of water in the Tartarus Colles Region. A small island is evident in the meandering channel (ESP_012444_2065).

Elevation range: -3,301 meters (purple/blue - lowest) to -3,189 meters (red/white - highest) below mean Mars surface elevation.

Source: http://www.uahirise.org/dtm/dtm.php?ID=ESP_012444_2065

Zooming in on Gasa Crater reveals gullies formed through erosion (ESP_021584_1440)

Elevation range: -704 meters (purple/blue - lowest) to 581 meters (red/white - highest) above mean Mars surface elevation.

Source: http://www.uahirise.org/dtm/dtm.php?ID=ESP_021584_1440

The "inverted valleys" near Juventae Chasma were once the floor of valleys. But over time, the topographic low regions, which are composed of material resistant to erosion (likely cemented there by water sedimentation), become ridges as the softer material around them eroded below the ancient valley floors (PSP_007627_1765).

Elevation range: 2,128 meters (purple/blue - lowest) to 2,234 meters (red/white - highest) above mean Mars surface elevation.

Source: http://www.uahirise.org/dtm/dtm.php?ID=PSP_007627_1765

A well-preserved 3 kilometer-wide impact crater (ESP_012991_1335).

Elevation range: 1,114 meters (purple/blue - lowest) to 1,742 meters (red/white - highest) above mean Mars surface elevation.

Source: http://www.uahirise.org/dtm/dtm.php?ID=ESP_012991_1335

A mound in Ganges Chasma. Using the topographical color reference, this feature is approximately 800 meters high from base to peak. The arcing structure around the mound may be a wind-blown ridge of material surrounding the obstacle (ESP_017173_1715).

Elevation range: -3,716 meters (purple/blue) to -2,711 meters (red/white) below mean Mars surface elevation.

Source: http://www.uahirise.org/dtm/dtm.php?ID=ESP_017173_1715

Inside a crater in Western Arabia Terra with stair-stepped hills and dunes.

Elevation range: -2,575 meters (purple/blue) to -2,259 meters (red/white) below mean Mars surface elevation.

Source: http://www.uahirise.org/dtm/dtm.php?ID=PSP_002047_1890

A fresh impact crater. Newly formed craters on Mars have smooth ridges and are often circular. Older craters undergo atmospheric erosion processes, often causing the ridges to appear broken, frayed and slumped (PSP_005837_1965).

Elevation range: -4,304 meters (purple/blue) to -3,658 meters (red/white) below mean Mars surface elevation.

Source: http://www.uahirise.org/dtm/dtm.php?ID=PSP_005837_1965

Layered surface deposits of material in the north polar region of Mars leave a step-like pattern (ESP_018870_2625).

Elevation range: -3,555 meters (purple/blue) to -3,027 meters (red/white) below mean Mars surface elevation.

Source: http://www.uahirise.org/dtm/dtm.php?ID=ESP_018870_2625

A deep fissure scars the Martian surface, a possible source of ancient floodwater (PSP_010361_1955).

Elevation range: -2,747 meters (purple/blue) to -1,577 meters (red/white) below mean Mars surface elevation.

Source: http://www.uahirise.org/dtm/dtm.php?ID=PSP_010361_1955

At the base of shield volcano Ascraeus Mons' slopes in the Tharsis Region, ancient river and tributary channels carve up the landscape (PSP_002486_1860).

Elevation range: 6,432 meters (purple/blue) to 6,675 meters (red/white) below mean Mars surface elevation.

Source: http://www.uahirise.org/dtm/dtm.php?ID=PSP_002486_1860

A distributary channel -- a river that branches off and flows away from a main channel -- can be seen flowing down the base of Ascraeus Mons (ESP_011373_1865).

Elevation range: 6,568 meters (purple/blue) to 6,766 meters (red/white) below mean Mars surface elevation.

Source: http://www.uahirise.org/dtm/dtm.php?ID=ESP_011373_1865

To see the full collection of HiRISE Digital Terrain Models, browse the HiRISE web archive.