From California’s coast to below Elysium Planitia with Mars InSight

MARS ATTACK Arcata’s Roger Eckart and his collaborator Antonio Wiese with the InSight Mars lander. Photo courtesy Roger Eckart

Note: Union Space Correspondent Roger Eckart recently traveled to Vandenberg Air Force Base, from which the InSight lander will be launched to Mars on an Atlas V-401 rocket this Saturday, May 5, and checked it out. First of two parts. – Ed.

Roger Eckart
Mad River Union

VANDENBERG AFB – The prep is pretty intense. A lot of it is about anticipation.

We are first given a 30-minute tutorial about Planet Protection, PP it’s called in NASA speak. Basically it boils down to keeping Earth bugs off Mars and Mars bugs off Earth.

Despite a transit at extremely cold temperatures and lack of any atmosphere Earth’s “bacterial endospores” can survive on all of our interplanetary probes. 

This can be especially problematic on landers. If we are looking for life on Mars in our exploration of the solar system, we do not want to find life that we have unintentionally taken there.

Mars InSight, as with most landers, is a bundle of as many science experiments that can be folded into the smallest space possible for the long trip. Out There! A veritable contortionist of engineering splendor.

InSight is another NASA acronym, Wikipedia calls it a “backronym,” (an acronym that’s been reverse-engineered from a word) that signifies Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport. Basically they want to study what is below the surface of Mars. 

So far, all of our exploration has been on the surface and in the atmosphere. We know very little about the interior. And how can you know a planet well if you know nothing of what is inside. 

Oh, and it will give us insight about the formation of other rocky planets in our solar system, Earth, Venus and Mercury.

InSight will mainly study Mars quakes with a very sensitive seismometer, and interior temperature with a self digging “mole” designed to burrow 15 feet or so into the ground. It is a mini pile-driver, tick ticking its way into the ground followed by its power cord and sensor cables. 

As we suit up into our “clean” bunny suits, media wearing dark blue compared to the crew wearing very light blue, we must follow their PP protocols closely. With all but our eyes showing it can be difficult to identify folks at a distance and they want to keep track of us. In the meantime they have been cleaning and bagging our camera equipment for entry.

We straddle a bench, don booties and place them across the bench onto the clean sticky side, particles being removed at every stage. Cleaner step by step, we finally enter the “air shower” rotating with arms above head as offensive spores are blown off and sucked out of the shower. The shower stops, the door clicks, and opens and we enter the “clean room” and InSight sits there, quietly, diminutive, amassing only 1,304 pounds.

 The JPL representative is talking and telling us who is who and how we should be careful and who we can talk to. I just need a minute to take it all in.

This feat of creativity and engineering beauty is going to Mars! 

After a minute or so I am able to reorient and take in the vast expanse of the Astrotech PPF (payload processing facility). There are any number of warning signs: “WARNING, ORDNANCE INSTALLED,” “WARNING HYDRAZINE HAS BEEN LOADED INTO VEHICLE, SPACECRAFT IS FUELED.” “Charged heat pipes contain Anhydrous Ammonia. ALL  PERSONNEL MUST EVACUATE THE AREA IF THEY SMELL AMMONIA,” oh, and “CALL 911”!

This room is huge. And InSight looks tiny sitting upside down, its belly exposed to the ceiling, little pie plate landing pads and legs all tucked in. It is just awaiting the placement of the ablative heat shield that protects it from the 2,500 degree entry. They will move the 40 foot tall fairings that protect the craft during launch and enclose the spacecraft before they move it out to the launch pad for placement on the Atlas V rocket. The high ceiling makes sense. 

After six months of travel, EDL (entry, descent, landing) begins with the spacecraft traveling 14,100 MPH. The heat shield allows the craft to slow using aero-braking even though there is little “aero” on Mars. Then a supersonic parachute opens, slows the craft more and finally after dropping its heat shield and back shell Insight drifts down until it is dropped. At this point landing

thrusters take over the descent and land the craft at a gentle 5.4 mph. All of this being run by autonomous onboard computers. With a delay of several minutes to communicate with Mission Control there is nothing they could do anyway – it has already happened. When they get the first indication of a successful landing, they are cheering an event that took place too many minutes ago. 

At this point, the craft has turned its long axis to face East and West on Mars to keep two solar arrays’ shadow out of the work area, and maximize the robot arm’s work space. For InSight’s only power during its one SOL (a Martian year, about two Earth years) mission is from the Sun.

Like Curiosity, the last lander, a rover, InSight does everything very slowly. It is move, check, move, take a picture, check, move. Unloading the science experiments is planned to take two weeks and all they are doing is unloading a seismometer and burrowing 15 feet into the ground to measure Mars’ interior. But it must be understood that at this distance and cost it makes sense to take it slow. Slow is good. 

If past missions are a good indicator, this probe will last much much longer than its design life of two years. Opportunity is still gathering data after 14 years (design estimate three months). Curiosity, the 2012 rover, is still roving after six years – three times its design life. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Boeing and Lockheed Martin Space’s work has proven reliable.

We have used up our alotted time with the lander, Astrotech and NASA folks are encouraging us to finish up. The next group is prepping. As we reverse the gowning process we realize how hot and moist it was getting inside our suits. And these professionals work all day this way. It is nice to be out in the open air. 

InSight will begin its 301 million mile journey this Saturday, May 5, at SLC 3, Vandenberg AFB near Lompoc, California on a ULA Atlas V.

Go Atlas, Go Centaur, Go InSight!



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