The last place you’d expect a dragonfly to land is Mars, but this is no ordinary dragonfly.
NASA’s InSight (Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) spacecraft mission, part of the NASA Discovery Program and led by the space agency’s Jet Propulsion Lab, just spread its wings for the first time where it was built at Lockheed Martin Space in Littleton, Co. for a pre-launch test before the launch window opens in May and it flies off to the Red Planet this November. Of course it passed.
"There are still many steps we have to take before launch, but this is a critical milestone,” said Lockheed Martin InSight Assembly, Test and Launch Operations (ATLO) Manager Scott Daniels.
Now what’s with those insanely cool “wings” that look like they belong to some enormous sci-fi insect? These are the spacecraft’s solar panels, exclusively designed to withstand the weak Martian sunlight that barely filters through its nearly nonexistent atmosphere swirling with dust almost 142 million miles from the sun. InSight will be powered by these panels as it crawls over Mars for an entire Martian year (two Earth years), and uses specialized instruments to delve deep into the Martian interior. InSight is the first space robot ever that will go beneath the Martian surface to study its crust, mantle and core.
InSight engineers and technicians at Lockheed Martin Space deployed the solar arrays as part of the test—which is where you get to see that dragonfly wing effect—and evaluated them. Its solar cells underwent an illumination test to make sure they have the capacity to absorb power from the sun’s rays in space.
"Think of InSight as Mars' first health checkup in more than 4.5 billion years," said principal investigator Bruce Banerdt of JPL. "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 lander also got some special bling: a microchip that JPL’s Microdevices Laboratory inscribed with 1,600 names of people who want to at least be there in spirit when it touches down in a cloud of reddish dust. They fit all those names on the dime-sized chip by making each character just 400 nanometers wide. NASA felt the chip, which adds to the other chip with 827,000 names that Insight is already wearing, was a fun way for anyone who wants to get involved with the mission to virtually take off with it.
If you think about it, InSight kind of looks like a mashup of a dragonfly and a praying mantis standing up, probably because it has more appendages than any actual known insect, but the proboscis of an Earth life-form can’t possibly find out what lies beneath the dusty regolith of Mars.