NASA’s Mars Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) spacecraft is on track for a soft touchdown on the surface of the Red Planet on Nov. 26, the Monday after Thanksgiving. But it’s not going to be a relaxing weekend of turkey leftovers, football and shopping for the InSight mission team. Engineers will be keeping a close eye on the stream of data indicating InSight’s health and trajectory, and monitoring Martian weather reports to figure out if the team needs to make any final adjustments in preparation for landing, only five days away.
“Landing on Mars is hard. It takes skill, focus and years of preparation,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Keeping in mind our ambitious goal to eventually send humans to the surface of the Moon and then Mars, I know that our incredible science and engineering team — the only in the world to have successfully landed spacecraft on the Martian surface — will do everything they can to successfully land InSight on the Red Planet.”
InSight, the first mission to study the deep interior of Mars, blasted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Central California on May 5, 2018. It has been an uneventful flight to Mars, and engineers like it that way. They will get plenty of excitement when InSight hits the top of the Martian atmosphere at 12,300 mph (19,800 kph) and slows down to 5 mph (8 kph) — about human jogging speed — before its three legs touch down on Martian soil. That extreme deceleration has to happen in just under seven minutes.
“There’s a reason engineers call landing on Mars ‘seven minutes of terror,'” said Rob Grover, InSight’s entry, descent and landing (EDL) lead, based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “We can’t joystick the landing, so we have to rely on the commands we pre-program into the spacecraft. We’ve spent years testing our plans, learning from other Mars landings and studying all the conditions Mars can throw at us. And we’re going to stay vigilant till InSight settles into its home in the Elysium Planitia region.”
One way engineers may be able to confirm quickly what activities InSight has completed during those seven minutes of terror is if the experimental CubeSat mission known as Mars Cube One (MarCO) relays InSight data back to Earth in near-real time during their flyby on Nov. 26. The two MarCO spacecraft (A and B) are making good progress toward their rendezvous point, and their radios have already passed their first deep-space tests.
NASA’s Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) spacecraft is on its way to Mars. InSight launched on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V 401 rocket at 4:05 a.m. PDT (7:05 a.m. EDT) this morning, May 5, from Space Launch Complex-3 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
There were no weather constraints at the time of rocket liftoff. Launch occurred at the beginning of the two-hour launch window.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine spoke to the mission team at Vandenberg by phone. “This has been years of work by a whole host of people, for a very long time, including JPL, and of course the launch crew at Vandenberg,” Bridenstine said. “I want to give a special thanks to ULA and congratulate them on 128 total successful launches in in a row, 78 specifically for the Atlas V. I want to thank our international partners, CNES and DLR, for their hard work.”
“It’s been an incredible day,” said Tim Dunn, NASA Launch Director for Insight. “It was a smooth countdown. The mighty Atlas rocket performed very well.”
Following two separate engine burns of the ULA Centaur upper stage, NASA’s InSight spacecraft separated from the Centaur to fly freely for the first time about 1.5 hours after liftoff. The spacecraft now is on its six-month, 300-million-mile voyage to the Red Planet. InSight will land on Mars on Nov. 26, 2018.
InSight is the first interplanetary mission to launch from the West Coast, and will be the first mission to look deep beneath the Martian surface. It will study the planet’s interior by measuring its heat output and listening for marsquakes. InSight will use the seismic waves generated by marsquakes to develop a map of the planet’s deep interior. The resulting insight into Mars’ formation will provide a better understanding of how other rocky planets, including Earth were created.
The InSight lander is equipped with two science instruments that will conduct the first “check-up” of Mars, measuring its “pulse,” or internal activity; its temperature and its “reflexes,” or the way the planet wobbles when it is pulled by the Sun and its moons.
JPL manages InSight for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. InSight is part of NASA’s Discovery Program, managed by the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The InSight spacecraft, including cruise stage and lander, was built and tested by Lockheed Martin Space in Denver. NASA’s Launch Services Program at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida is responsible for launch service acquisition, integration, analysis, and launch management. United Launch Alliance of Centennial, Colorado, is NASA’s launch service provider.
The science payload comprises two instruments: the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS), provided by the French Space Agency, with the participation of the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris (IPGP), the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Imperial College and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The second instrument, the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3), is provided by the German Space Agency. Also, the Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment (RISE), led by JPL, will use the spacecraft communication system to provide precise measurements of planetary rotation.
Hitching a ride with InSight was NASA’s technology experiment, Mars Cube One (MarCO), a separate mission of its own, also headed to Mars. The two mini-spacecraft, called CubeSats, launched one at a time from dispensers mounted on the aft bulkhead carrier of the Centaur second stage. They were designed and built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and are the first test of CubeSat technology in deep space. Their purpose is to test new communications and navigation capabilities for future missions, and may provide real-time communication relay to cover the entry, descent and landing of InSight on Mars.
“This is a big day. We’re going back to Mars; we did it from the West Coast, which is a first ever,” Bridenstine said. “And of course, the launch of our CubeSats into deep space. This is an extraordinary mission with a whole host of firsts.”
It’s an exciting day for NASA. The agency’s twin Mars Cube One (MarCO) mini-spacecraft have launched from dispensers mounted on the aft bulkhead carrier of the Atlas V Centaur second stage. Designed and built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, MarCO will be the first test of CubeSat technology in deep space. They are designed to test new communications and navigation capabilities for future missions and may provide real-time communication relay to cover the entry, descent and landing of InSight on Mars.
We have spacecraft separation. Cheers and applause can be heard from the launch teams as the InSight spacecraft separates from the United Launch Alliance Centaur upper stage to fly freely for the first time.
InSight Countdown to T-Zero, Episode 1: From the West Coast to the Red Planet The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket reaches another major milestone on the road to T-Zero, as NASA’s InSight spacecraft prepares for launch. Stacking the rocket begins with the booster – the largest component – and continues with the addition of the Centaur upper stage. InSight is slated to launch aboard the Atlas V 401 rocket Saturday, May 5, at 7:05 a.m. EDT (4:05 a.m. PDT) from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Watch the T-Zero video at https://youtu.be/U3tNa0sxmu0.
Insight Countdown to T-Zero, Episode 2: Into the Fairing The launch campaign heats up for NASA’s InSight spacecraft and United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The Mars-bound probe is secured inside its protective payload fairing, then moved overnight to the launch pad, where it’s lifted into position atop the waiting Atlas V. Also on board are two small communications-relay satellites – MarCO-A and MarCO-B – intended to become the first CubeSats to venture into deep space. View the T-Zero video at https://youtu.be/YKVhjdWitsg.
The Centaur upper stage main engine has started its burn following on-time booster engine cutoff and Atlas/Centaur separation. The first of two burns for the Centaur main engine start will last nearly eight minutes. The payload fairing has been jettisoned.
Booster ignition and liftoff of the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket at 7:05 a.m. EDT (4:05 a.m. PDT), from Space Launch Complex 3 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, carrying NASA’s InSight spacecraft. The rocket is on its way, carrying NASA’s Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) to begin its six month voyage to Mars.
About four minutes into flight, a series of key events occurs in rapid succession: Atlas booster engine cutoff, separation of the booster from the Centaur upper stage, ignition of the Centaur main engine for its first of two burns, then jettison of the payload fairing.
The InSight countdown is underway, proceeding toward a liftoff at 7:05 a.m. EDT (4:05 a.m. PDT). During the last four minutes of the countdown, the Atlas and Centaur propellant tanks will be brought up to flight pressure, the rocket and spacecraft will be confirmed on internal power, and the Western Range and launch managers will perform final status checks. A computerized autosequencer will take over the countdown in order to conduct a host of activities in precise order.