By sensing and studying its “vital signs” which lie below the surface – its “pulse” (seismology), “temperature” (heat flow), and “reflexes” (precision tracking).
During the first few weeks NASA scientists say they will be extra cautious as anything unexpected will trigger a fault.
Although considered routine, a fault causes the spacecraft to stop what it is doing and ask for help from operators on the ground. “We did extensive testing on Earth. But we know that everything is a little different for the lander on Mars, so faults are not unusual,” said InSight project manager, Tom Hoffman. “They can delay operations, but we’re not in a rush.
We want to be sure that each operation that we perform on Mars is safe, so we set our safety monitors to be fairly sensitive initially”
In the coming weeks, scientists and engineers will go through the painstaking process of deciding where the spacecraft’s instruments should be placed.
They will then command InSight’s robotic arm to carefully set the seismometer (called the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure or SEIS) and heat-flow probe (known as the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package, or HP³) in the chosen locations.
Both work best on level ground, and NASA engineers want to avoid setting them on rocks larger than about 1.3cm. The two-year £633 million InSight mission is part of NASA’s Discovery Program.
A number of European partners, including France’s Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES) and the German Aerospace Center (DLR), are supporting the mission.
CNES and the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris (IPGP) provided the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) instrument, with significant contributions from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Germany, the Swiss Institute of Technology (ETH) in Switzerland, Imperial College London and Oxford University in the United Kingdom, and JPL.
DLR provided the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) instrument, with significant contributions from the Space Research Center (CBK) of the Polish Academy of Sciences and Astronika in Poland. Spain’s Centro de Astrobiología (CAB) supplied the wind sensors.
The rocket that launched InSight also launched a separate NASA technology experiment: two mini-spacecraft called Mars Cube One, or MarCO.
These briefcase-sized CubeSats flew on their own path to Mars behind InSight. Their goal was to test new miniaturized deep space communication equipment.
Upon their arrival, the twin MarCOs successfully relayed back InSight data as it entered the Martian atmosphere and landed. This was the first test of miniaturized CubeSat technology at another planet, which researchers hope can offer new capabilities to future missions.