Space agencies around the world are set to explore the red planet, while Elon Musk has even grander plans.
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.”
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?
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.
In mere hours, NASA’s InSight spacecraft will complete its seven-month journey to Mars. It will have cruised 301,223,981 miles (484,773,006 km) at a top speed of 6,200 mph (10,000 kph).
Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, which leads the mission, are preparing for the spacecraft to enter the Martian atmosphere, descend with a parachute and retrorockets, and touch down tomorrow at around noon PST (3 p.m. EST). InSight — which stands for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport — will be the first mission to study the deep interior of Mars.
“We’ve studied Mars from orbit and from the surface since 1965, learning about its weather, atmosphere, geology and surface chemistry,” said Lori Glaze, acting director of the Planetary Science Division in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “Now we finally will explore inside Mars and deepen our understanding of our terrestrial neighbor as NASA prepares to send human explorers deeper into the solar system.”
Before InSight enters the Martian atmosphere, there are a few final preparations to make. At 1:47 p.m. PST (4:47 p.m. EST) engineers successfully conducted a last trajectory correction maneuver to steer the spacecraft within a few kilometers of its targeted entry point over Mars. Engineers still need to conduct a last trajectory correction maneuver to steer the spacecraft toward its entry point over Mars. About two hours before hitting the atmosphere, the entry, descent and landing (EDL) team might also upload some final tweaks to the algorithm that guides the spacecraft safely to the surface.
Mars is about to get its first U.S. visitor in years: a three-legged, one-armed geologist to dig deep and listen for quakes.
ASA’s InSight makes its grand entrance through the rose-tinted Martian skies on Monday, after a six-month, 300 million-mile (480 million-kilometer) journey. It will be the first American spacecraft to land since the Curiosity rover in 2012 and the first dedicated to exploring underground.
NASA is going with a tried-and-true method to get this mechanical miner to the surface of the red planet. Engine firings will slow its final descent and the spacecraft will plop down on its rigid legs, mimicking the landings of earlier successful missions.
That’s where old school ends on this $1 billion U.S.-European effort .
Once flight controllers in California determine the coast is clear at the landing site—fairly flat and rock free—InSight’s 6-foot (1.8-meter) arm will remove the two main science experiments from the lander’s deck and place them directly on the Martian surface.
No spacecraft has attempted anything like that before.
The firsts don’t stop there.
One experiment will attempt to penetrate 16 feet (5 meters) into Mars, using a self-hammering nail with heat sensors to gauge the planet’s internal temperature. That would shatter the out-of-this-world depth record of 8 feet (2 ½ meters) drilled by the Apollo moonwalkers nearly a half-century ago for lunar heat measurements.
The astronauts also left behind instruments to measure moonquakes. InSight carries the first seismometers to monitor for marsquakes—if they exist. Yet another experiment will calculate Mars’ wobble, providing clues about the planet’s core.
NASA’s Mars Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) lander is scheduled to touch down on the Red Planet at approximately 3 p.m. EST Nov. 26, and viewers everywhere can watch coverage of the event live on NASA Television, the agency’s website and social media platforms.
Launched on May 5, InSight marks NASA’s first Mars landing since the Curiosity rover in 2012. The landing will kick off a two-year mission in which InSight will become the first spacecraft to study Mars’ deep interior. Its data also will help scientists understand the formation of all rocky worlds, including our own.
InSight is being followed to Mars by two mini-spacecraft comprising NASA’s Mars Cube One (MarCO), the first deep-space mission for CubeSats. If MarCO makes its planned Mars flyby, it will attempt to relay data from InSight as it enters the planet’s atmosphere and lands.
InSight and MarCO flight controllers will monitor the spacecraft’s entry, descent and landing from mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, where all landing events will take place.
“Picking a good landing site on Mars is a lot like picking a good home: It’s all about location, location, location,” said Tom Hoffman, InSight project manager at JPL. “And for the first time ever, the evaluation for a Mars landing site had to consider what lay below the surface of Mars. We needed not just a safe place to land, but also a workspace that’s penetrable by our 16-foot-long (5-meter) heat-flow probe.”
The site also needs to be bright enough and warm enough to power the solar cells while keeping its electronics within temperature limits for an entire Martian year (26 Earth months).
So the team focused on a band around the equator, where the lander’s solar array would have adequate sunlight to power its systems year-round. Finding an area that would be safe enough for InSight to land and then deploy its solar panels and instruments without obstructions took a little longer.
“The site has to be a low-enough elevation to have sufficient atmosphere above it for a safe landing, because the spacecraft will rely first on atmospheric friction with its heat shield and then on a parachute digging into Mars’ tenuous atmosphere for a large portion of its deceleration,” said Hoffman. “And after the chute has fallen away and the braking rockets have kicked in for final descent, there needs to be a flat expanse to land on – not too undulating and relatively free of rocks that could tip the tri-legged Mars lander.”
Of 22 sites considered, only Elysium Planitia, Isidis Planitia and Valles Marineris met the basic engineering constraints. To grade the three remaining contenders, reconnaissance images from NASA’s Mars orbiters were scoured and weather records searched. Eventually, Isidis Planitia and Valles Marineris were ruled out for being too rocky and windy.
That left the 81-mile long, 17-mile-wide (130-kilometer-long, 27-kilometer-wide) landing ellipse on the western edge of a flat, smooth expanse of lava plain.
You don’t need wheels to explore Mars.
After touching down in November, NASA’s InSight spacecraft will spread its solar panels, unfold a robotic arm … and stay put. Unlike the space agency’s rovers, InSight is a lander designed to study an entire planet from just one spot.
This sedentary science allows InSight to detect geophysical signals deep below the Martian surface, including marsquakes and heat. Scientists will also be able to track radio signals from the stationary spacecraft, which vary based on the wobble in Mars’ rotation. Understanding this wobble could help solve the mystery of whether the planet’s core is solid.
Here are five things to know about how InSight conducts its science:
NASA’s InSight spacecraft, en route to a Nov. 26 landing on Mars, passed the halfway mark on Aug. 6. All of its instruments have been tested and are working well.
As of Aug. 20, the spacecraft had covered 172 million miles (277 million kilometers) since its launch 107 days ago. In another 98 days, it will travel another 129 million miles (208 million kilometers) and touch down in Mars’ Elysium Planitia region, where it will be the first mission to study the Red Planet’s deep interior. InSight stands for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport.
The InSight team is using the time before the spacecraft’s arrival at Mars to not only plan and practice for that critical day, but also to activate and check spacecraft subsystems vital to cruise, landing and surface operations, including the highly sensitive science instruments.