Researchers have begun testing NASA's InSight lander, destined for Mars in 2016. Photo by NASA/JPL
DENVER, May 27 (UPI) -- Engineers have begun testing NASA's stationary Mars lander, called Insight, at Lockheed Martin's Space Systems facility outside of Denver.
The lander is scheduled to launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, in California, in March 2016. Six months later, it will touch down on Mars' red soil. NASA's ultimate goal is to send astronauts to Mars, but before a manned Martian mission can happen, researchers at the U.S. space agency need to know more about the Red Planet.
The InSight mission aims to do just that. The lander won't move about the planet like a rover but will remain in place. Its area of interest is what lies beneath. The lander is a stationary driller, and will offer scientists the first in-depth analysis of Mars' underground layers.
Researchers say Mars' deep interior could offer clues to how other rock planets, like Earth, form and evolve.
But before InSight can look for clues, it needs to pass some tests. Over the coming months, engineers will subject the lander to a range of extreme conditions mimicking the environments of space travel and life on Mars.
"The assembly of InSight went very well and now it's time to see how it performs," Stu Spath, InSight program manager at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, said in a press release. "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."
The planned Insight launch is just one of a number of missions aimed at readying NASA and its personnel for a manned trip to Mars. The agency continues to manage a number of robotic missions on Mars, and is currently developing the Space Launch System and Orion crew module for future deep space missions.
"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. "Together, humans and robotics will pioneer Mars and the solar system."