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360-Degree View: In the Lab with NASA's InSight Mars Lander

A new 360-degree video on NASA's YouTube channel shows an engineering model of the InSight lander testing out instrument deployment in a simulated Martian environment at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California. 

After years of moving rovers around the surface of Mars, NASA's next mission to the Red Planet will be a more stationary one. As the agency said in a recent statement, the main job of InSight, which launches no earlier than May 5, will be "to stay very still, and to gather high-precision data."

InSight will be the first Martian mission focused on the interior of the planet, measuring "marsquakes" and the planet's internal temperature. The data it gathers will help scientists better understand how all rocky planets form, including Mars itself. [Missions to Mars: A Robot Red Planet Invasion History (Infographic)]

As team member Marleen Martinez Sundgaard explains in the video, JPL uses crushed garnet to simulate the Martian regolith (or soil). "It simulates the Martian surface, but it has the added benefit of being dust-free," said Sundgaard, InSight's test-bed lead.

The aim is to make sure InSight can put its instruments down safely, even if it lands on an uneven patch of dirt. The spacecraft must carefully set down a seismometer (called a Science Experiment for Interior Structure), a shield to protect the seismometer from wind and changes in temperature (the Wind and Thermal Shield), and a heat-flow probe (Heat Flow and Physical Properties Probe). Its operations were tested in the lab at different tilts, going up to as high as 15 degrees. 

"All this practice ensures InSight can set these objects down safely no matter what surprises its landing site has in store," NASA officials said in the statement.

The team must figure out how to safely place the instruments without tangling the individual tethers supplying power to each instrument, Sundgaard said. "We have multiple places where we could put each instrument down," he added in the statement. "There are scenarios where the tethers would cross each other, so we need to make sure they don't snag."

Researchers are also using the lab to re-create the Martian surface's brightness and color as sunlight hits it, taking into account the planet's greater distance from the sun and its perpetual cloudiness from dust in the atmosphere. This helps calibrate the cameras.

If the spacecraft makes it safely, it will join two other long-running NASA missions on the surface of Mars: the Opportunity rover (which landed in 2004) and the Curiosityrover (which landed in 2012).

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Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell is a contributing writer for who is one of the few Canadian journalists to report regularly on space exploration. She is the author or co-author of several books on space exploration. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Dakota in Space Studies, and an M.Sc. from the same department. She also holds a bachelor of journalism degree from Carleton University in Canada, where she began her space-writing career in 2004. Besides writing, Elizabeth teaches communications at the university and community college level, and for government training schools. To see her latest projects, follow Elizabeth on Twitter at @howellspace.