The next mission to the red planet just passed its final pre-flight tests, and engineers say it’s now ready to “ship and shoot.” The InSight Mars lander will soon be transported from the Lockheed Martin test facility in Colorado to Vandenberg Air Force Base in California for a scheduled May 5 launch aboard an Atlas V rocket.
InSight’s solar arrays were deployed for the final test, unfurling into large circular panels that will provide power to the lander. “This was our last major test before we start building up into a launch configuration,” Scott Daniels of Lockheed Space told Space.com. “This test worked really successfully.”
“Mechanical inspections looked really good and clean,” he added. “Everything happened when it was supposed to happen.”
Unlike the Curiosity Rover, the InSight lander (short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy, and Heat Transport) won’t be wandering around the surface of the planet taking selfies. Rather, it’s designed to plumb the depths of the red planet using an array of seismic sensors to monitor “Marsquakes” and other geologic activity deep below the surface.
The landing site is an area known as the Elysium Planitia, near the Martian equator. It’s an unremarkable, flat landing spot — and that’s a good thing, according to scientists. “Just a bland, normal place,” said Bruce Banerdt of JPL. “We’ve mapped the topography of Mars, the geology, and we have a good characterization of the planet’s atmosphere, ionosphere and exosphere. The deep interior of Mars was sort of the last piece in that puzzle.”
The mission was originally planned for 2016, but a leak in one of the seismometers forced NASA to abort the mission. The lengthy delay was due to the fact that Earth and Mars are only in a favorable alignment once every 26 months. If all goes well, the lander will touch down on Mars in November 2018.
The InSight Lander will also be carrying an unusual cargo — two tiny microchips containing the names of more than 2.4 million people. NASA invited the public to sign up at its website, and millions of would-be space travelers responded.
Among those was the original Captain Kirk, William Shatner. NASA issued a “boarding pass” to everyone who participated, and Shatner shared his with his flowers on Twitter.
Although a manned expedition to Mars is still some years away, missions like the InSight Lander and the upcoming new Mars rover in 2020 get us closer to the red planet every year.