February 8th, 2019

NASA’s first interplanetary CubeSats fall silent beyond Mars

After a successful mission that pushed the limits of small satellite technology, ground controllers have lost contact with two briefcase-sized CubeSats beyond Mars, NASA said Tuesday.

The pioneering Mars Cube One, or MarCO, mission set records for the farthest distance CubeSats have ever operated, accompanying NASA’s InSight lander to Mars after a May 5 launch atop an Atlas 5 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

The twin MarCO spacecraft relayed telemetry from InSight as it entered the Martian atmosphere Nov. 26 and successfully landed on the Red Planet, giving engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California updates on the lander’s progress. albeit with an eight-minute delay due to the time it took radio signals to travel the 91 million miles (146 million kilometers) from Mars to Earth.

InSight could have succeeded without MarCO, but engineers would have had to wait hours to receive confirmation of the landing.

But MarCO was conceived primarily as an experimental mission to prove that CubeSats, with some modifications, could withstand the perils of deep space travel. CubeSats are much less expensive than larger satellites, and can cost less than $1 million to design and build for missions in Earth orbit.

The Mars Cube One mission cost $18.5 million, once engineers at JPL outfitted the satellites with a new type of radio, innovative antennas, a cold gas propulsion system, and other custom features needed for interplanetary spaceflight.

That’s still a fraction of the InSight mission’s $993 million cost.

February 6th, 2019

Motors on Mars: The technology being sent to explore Mars

Artist’s impression of the Mars helicopter

The US space agency, NASA, has announced that its Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) will be sending a helicopter to the Red Planet on the upcoming Mars 2020 rover mission. It will land on Mars while attached to the bottom of the rover in February 2021. During the first 30 days of the mission, it will undertake several autonomous flights, each lasting up to 90 seconds to send the first aerial images (not taken by a satellite) of Mars back to Earth.

For the small helicopter to fly, it takes an enormous engineering effort. The thin air on Mars is comparable to conditions on Earth at an altitude of 30km. Also, taking the reduced Martian gravity into account, the helicopter needs to be very light (1.8kg) and can only carry small batteries.

The components used therefore must be extremely energy-efficient. Six of maxon motors’ 10mm diameter DCX precision micro motors, which have been used in previous Mars missions, will be used to move the swashplate, adjusting the inclination of the rotor blades, to control the vehicle.

The propulsion system is designed and built by AeroVironment, working closely with maxon engineers, under contract from JPL.

“Being part of another Mars pioneering project makes us incredibly proud,” says Eugen Elmiger, CEO of maxon motor.

February 5th, 2019

Watch InSight’s Busy First Months on Mars

NASA’s InSight lander tucked its seismic instrument under a shield to protect it from wind and extreme temperatures. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Since InSight’s landing on Mars late last year, it’s been hard at work studying what lays beneath the surface of the Red Planet. The lander’s mission is to understand Mars’ deep interior, what it’s made of and how the planet moves. To that end, InSight has been studying the area around it, practicing its movements, and scouting the best locations to place instruments. And now, the science is kicking into gear.

To accomplish its mission, InSight needs to place a few instruments on the surface and then monitor them. The lander has two main instruments it has to re-home: the Heat flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) and the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS). The first will measure temperatures underneath Mars’ surface, while the latter will listen for subtle Mars-quakes. InSight also carries a Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment (RISE), but this will remain riding piggy-back on the lander for the duration of the two-year mission.

December 13th, 2018

NASA’s InSight Takes Its First Selfie

This is NASA InSight’s first selfie on Mars. It displays the lander’s solar panels and deck. On top of the deck are its science instruments, weather sensor booms and UHF antenna. The selfie was taken on Dec. 6, 2018 (Sol 10).
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s InSight lander isn’t camera-shy. The spacecraft used a camera on its robotic arm to take its first selfie — a mosaic made up of 11 images. This is the same imaging process used by NASA’s Curiosity rover mission, in which many overlapping pictures are taken and later stitched together. Visible in the selfie are the lander’s solar panel and its entire deck, including its science instruments.

Mission team members have also received their first complete look at InSight’s “workspace” — the approximately 14-by-7-foot (4-by-2-meter) crescent of terrain directly in front of the spacecraft. This image is also a mosaic composed of 52 individual photos.

In the coming weeks, scientists and engineers will go through the painstaking process of deciding where in this workspace 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 engineers want to avoid setting them on rocks larger than about a half-inch (1.3 cm).

December 7th, 2018

NASA InSight Lander ‘Hears’ Martian Winds

One of InSight’s 7-foot (2.2 meter) wide solar panels was imaged by the lander’s Instrument Deployment Camera, which is fixed to the elbow of its robotic arm.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) lander, which touched down on Mars just 10 days ago, has provided the first ever “sounds” of Martian winds on the Red Planet. A media teleconference about these sounds will be held today at 12:30 p.m. EST (9:30 a.m. PST).

InSight sensors captured a haunting low rumble caused by vibrations from the wind, estimated to be blowing between 10 to 15 mph (5 to 7 meters a second) on Dec. 1, from northwest to southeast. The winds were consistent with the direction of dust devil streaks in the landing area, which were observed from orbit.

“Capturing this audio was an unplanned treat,” said Bruce Banerdt, InSight principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. “But one of the things our mission is dedicated to is measuring motion on Mars, and naturally that includes motion caused by sound waves.”

December 4th, 2018

NASA InSight Lander’s New Home on Mars ‘a Large Sandbox’

NASA’s InSight spacecraft flipped open the lens cover on its Instrument Context Camera (ICC) on Nov. 30, 2018, and captured this view of Mars. Located below the deck of the InSight lander, the ICC has a fisheye view, creating a curved horizon. Some clumps of dust are still visible on the camera’s lens. One of the spacecraft’s footpads can be seen in the lower right corner. The seismometer’s tether box is in the upper left corner. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

With InSight safely on the surface of Mars, the mission team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, is busy learning more about the spacecraft’s landing site. They knew when InSight landed on Nov. 26 that the spacecraft had touched down on target, a lava plain named Elysium Planitia. Now they’ve determined that the vehicle sits slightly tilted (about 4 degrees) in a shallow dust- and sand-filled impact crater known as a “hollow.” InSight has been engineered to operate on a surface with an inclination up to 15 degrees.

“The science team had been hoping to land in a sandy area with few rocks since we chose the landing site, so we couldn’t be happier,” said InSight project manager Tom Hoffman of JPL. “There are no landing pads or runways on Mars, so coming down in an area that is basically a large sandbox without any large rocks should make instrument deployment easier and provide a great place for our mole to start burrowing.”

Rockiness and slope grade factor into landing safety and are also important in determining whether InSight can succeed in its mission after landing. Rocks and slopes could affect InSight’s ability to place its heat-flow probe – also known as “the mole,” or HP3 – and ultra-sensitive seismometer, known as SEIS, on the surface of Mars.

December 3rd, 2018

Five planned missions to Mars

An artist’s impression of SpaceX’s Starship and Super Heavy Rocket. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Space agencies around the world are set to explore the red planet, while Elon Musk has even grander plans.

November 30th, 2018

Bothell company’s explosives made sure Mars craft had a soft landing

In this February 2015 photo made available by NASA, the parachute for the InSight mission to Mars is tested inside the world’s largest wind tunnel at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin via AP)

Redmond-based rocket maker Aerojet-Rocketdyne wasn’t the only [Washington State] firm anxiously watching the NASA Mars landing on Monday.

In nearby Bothell, a team at the General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems operation sat in front of a live video feed from NASA’s Mission Control, waiting for news about their own piece of the mission — a small but powerful cannon designed to blast out the parachute that helped slow the InSight landing craft as it plunged through the Martian atmosphere.

The so-called Mortar Deployment System is a wastebasket-sized cylindrical device, roughly 18 inches long and 10 inches across, that uses a precisely calibrated explosion to rapidly inflate a huge parachute behind the lander. That high-caliber shove is needed because the Martian atmosphere, at only one-hundredth the density of Earth’s, is so thin that the parachute won’t unfold on its own, said Paul Lichon, director of General Dynamic’s Bothell operation.

And unless the chute deploys fully and precisely on time, Lichon said, the lander’s braking rockets — supplied by Aerojet-Rocketdyne — wouldn’t slow the lander sufficiently to avoid a crash landing.

“This is one of the few systems on the spacecraft that is ‘single-point failure,’” said Lichon. “If our system doesn’t work, the whole mission is lost.”

November 29th, 2018

Opinion: Mars Beckons

Niv Bavarsky

The science and technology behind NASA’s latest space explorer to land on Mars are so awe-inducing that it’s hardly surprising when scientists commenting on the triumph drop their usual jargon to speak like excited schoolchildren.

“It’s nice and dirty; I like that,” was how Bruce Banerdt, the principal investigator behind the InSight mission, reacted when, shortly after setting down Monday on the flat and featureless Martian plain known as the Elysium Planitia, the lander beamed back an image speckled with red dust. “This image is actually a really good argument for why you put a dust cover on a camera. Good choice, right?”

Unlike the [rovers], InSight — Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport — is meant to stay in one spot and deploy instruments to measure marsquakes (yes, on Earth they’re “earthquakes”) in order to learn about what’s going on in the innards of the planet. One gizmo will take Mars’s temperature by hammering itself 16 feet below the surface. Deploying the instruments alone is expected to take two months, and the entire mission is meant to last a Martian year, roughly two Earth years.

What for? A random sampling of comments from the public suggests not everyone is convinced that digging on Mars is money well spent. But the basic answer is that whether it’s practical or not, humans will continue to explore the heavens so long as the moon, Mars and the myriad celestial bodies beyond fire our imagination and curiosity. What happened in the earliest days of the universe? How were Earth and its fellow planets formed? And the question of questions: Is there life out there?

November 27th, 2018

InSight Is Catching Rays on Mars

The Instrument Deployment Camera (IDC), located on the robotic arm of NASA’s InSight lander, took this picture of the Martian surface on Nov. 26, 2018, the same day the spacecraft touched down on the Red Planet. The camera’s transparent dust cover is still on in this image, to prevent particulates kicked up during landing from settling on the camera’s lens. This image was relayed from InSight to Earth via NASA’s Odyssey spacecraft, currently orbiting Mars. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

NASA’s InSight has sent signals to Earth indicating that its solar panels are open and collecting sunlight on the Martian surface. NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter relayed the signals, which were received on Earth at about 5:30 p.m. PST (8:30 p.m. EST). Solar array deployment ensures the spacecraft can recharge its batteries each day. Odyssey also relayed a pair of images showing InSight’s landing site.

“The InSight team can rest a little easier tonight now that we know the spacecraft solar arrays are deployed and recharging the batteries,” said Tom Hoffman, InSight’s project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, which leads the mission. “It’s been a long day for the team. But tomorrow begins an exciting new chapter for InSight: surface operations and the beginning of the instrument deployment phase.”

InSight’s twin solar arrays are each 7 feet (2.2 meters) wide; when they’re open, the entire lander is about the size of a big 1960s convertible. Mars has weaker sunlight than Earth because it’s much farther away from the Sun. But the lander doesn’t need much to operate: The panels provide 600 to 700 watts on a clear day, enough to power a household blender and plenty to keep its instruments conducting science on the Red Planet. Even when dust covers the panels — what is likely to be a common occurrence on Mars — they should be able to provide at least 200 to 300 watts.