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In Run-Up to Mars Mission, InSight Spacecraft Conducts Successful Ground Test

Lander set to launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in May with expected landing in late November

While in the landed configuration for the last time before arriving on Mars, NASA’s InSight lander was commanded to deploy its solar arrays to test and verify the exact process that it will use on the surface of the Red Planet. The test was conducted last week at Lockheed Martin’s facility in Littleton, Colo. InSight is scheduled to launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in May. Click to view larger
While in the landed configuration for the last time before arriving on Mars, NASA’s InSight lander was commanded to deploy its solar arrays to test and verify the exact process that it will use on the surface of the Red Planet. The test was conducted last week at Lockheed Martin’s facility in Littleton, Colo. InSight is scheduled to launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in May. (Lockheed Martin photo)

Just four months before blasting off on Vandenberg Air Force Base’s first interplanetary mission, NASA’s newest Mars lander recently passed a key milestone.

Extension of the spacecraft’s solar arrays occurred at the Lockheed Martin Space facility in Littleton, Colo., where InSight was built and has been tested prior to launch.

The solar arrays, which are key to keeping InSight powered to conduct its mission, will be stored for its trip to Mars.

“This is the last time we will see the spacecraft in landed configuration before it arrives at the Red Planet,” said Scott Daniels, Lockheed Martin InSight Assembly, Test and Launch Operations (ATLO) manager.

“There are still many steps we have to take before launch, but this is a critical milestone before shipping to Vandenberg Air Force Base.”

InSight’s full name is Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, which spells out the mission to explore Mars.

The InSight launch opportunity opens May 5 and runs through June 8. Due to its destination and orbital mechanics, the mission has launch opportunities every 26 months.

InSight will begin its flight toward Mars aboard an Atlas V rocket built by United Launch Alliance and set to blast off from Space Launch Complex-3 on South Base.

The spacecraft is expected to land on Mars on Nov. 26 after completing its 301 million-mile journey.

The Mars spacecraft sports fan-like solar panels designed for the planet’s weak sunlight, NASA officials said.

NASA’s InSight lander’s solar arrays are key to keeping the spacecraft powered to conduct its mission to Mars later this year. Click to view larger
NASA’s InSight lander’s solar arrays are key to keeping the spacecraft powered to conduct its mission to Mars later this year. (Lockheed Martin photo)

That weak sunlight is blamed on Mars’ distance from the sun and its dusty, thin atmosphere.

The panels will power InSight for at least one Martian year — two Earth years — for the first mission dedicated to studying the interior of Mars.

“Think of InSight as Mars’ first health checkup in more than 4.5 billion years,” said JPL’s Bruce Banerdt, the mission’s principal investigator. “We’ll study its pulse by ‘listening’ for marsquakes with a seismometer. We’ll take its temperature with a heat probe. And we’ll check its reflexes with a radio experiment.”

The solar panel extension test wasn’t the final chore. Engineers also added a microchip inscribed with more than 1.6 million names submitted by the public.

That chip joins another containing almost 827,000 names that was glued to the top of InSight back in 2015, adding up to a total of about 2.4 million names going to Mars.

“It’s a fun way for the public to feel personally invested in the mission,”​ Banerdt said. “We’re happy to have them along for the ride.”

Each character on the InSight microchips is just 400 nanometers wide. For comparison, a human hair is 100,000 nanometers wide, while a red blood cell is 8,000 nanometers wide.

This is not the first mission to carry names to Mars since names also were included on Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity rovers.

In 2015, days after InSight previously arrived at Vandenberg, NASA officials announced the mission’s delay due to a glitch involving a key component for the science mission. The time to fix the glitch meant InSight missed the 2016 launch opportunity, forcing the team to wait until this year.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

(Matthew Travis video)

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