Preparations for NASA's next mission to Mars are kicking into high gear. And the technology the space agency is building for the Martian lander slated to launch in 2016 is enough to make science fiction fans foam at the mouth.
The mission, Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight for short) is going to be the very first devoted to studying the interior structure of the Red Planet. Exploring Mars' deep subsurface will shed light on how the planet has evolved geologically over time, but InSight could also offer clues about Earth's future and the evolution of rocky planets at large.
Mars, roughly half the size of Earth, lost all of its core heat eons ago, which in turn caused tectonic activity to grind to a halt. In the distant future, something similar will happen on the blue marble, and our rapidly-ageing little brother might show us what to expect.
According to NASA, the technical capabilities of InSight represent a critical step toward a manned mission to the Red Planet, which the space agency hopes to ship off in the 2030s. Let's have a look at some of the components of the geologically-minded craft now under construction by Lockheed Martin.
Solar arrays on InSight are deployed in this test inside a clean room at Lockheed Martin Space Systems.
A top view of InSight's cruise stage, which has its own solar arrays, thrusters, and radio antennas.
In this photo, the back shell of InSight is being lowered onto the mission's lander. InSight's back shell, along with a heat shield, together comprise an aeroshell which will protect the lander from burning up as it plunges into Mars' upper atmosphere.
The heat shield, under construction.
The most important part of InSight — the science deck, containing all the tools necessary to carry out plenty of awesome sciencing. Or so we think. All we know so far about this oversized motherboard is that the large circular component is a covering that will protect InSight's seismometer — a device used to record earthquakes, volcanic activity, and other types of below ground motion — after the instrument is placed on the Martian ground.
WTF is this?! Oh, it's the guts of the lander, being assembled by Lockheed Martin engineers in a clean room. Rad, I was worried somebody let Doc Brown loose on the premises.
And of course, no space mission would be complete without a big-arse parachute to make the landing extra soft, amirite?
Image Credits: NASA/ JPL-Caltech / Lockheed Martin