After journeying 301 million miles, NASA’s InSight is set to land Monday on the Red Planet, the final leg of Vandenberg Air Force Base’s first mission to another planet, prompting excitement and a healthy dose of nerves for the last steps of the trip.
Several nerve-wracking milestones remain for the spacecraft. InSight stands for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport.
“Going to Mars is really, really hard,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. “As humanity, the explorers all over the world, we’re batting about 50 percent or less of successful missions there.”
Still, he said, the team has built upon lessons learned from other Mars missions.
The journey began with the blastoff of an Atlas V rocket on a foggy morning May 5 at Vandenberg, putting scientists closer to the arrival they have awaited for years.
NASA officials have called Monday’s entry, descent and landing — with touchdown expected shortly before noon — a white-knuckle event before InSight can begin conducting research of Mars.
“There’s a reason engineers call landing on Mars ‘seven minutes of terror,’” said Rob Grover, InSight’s entry, descent and landing lead, based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. “We can’t joystick the landing, so we have to rely on the commands we pre-program into the spacecraft.”
‘Blood, sweat and tears’
The team crafted its plans after studying other Mars missions and learning challenges presented by the Red Planet.
“It’s been awhile going to the Red Planet, and with just five days to go we are very excited,” said Stu Spath, who has spent seven years on the program with prime contractor Lockheed Martin Space. “So I do have a lot of blood, sweat and tears invested in this, and I’m looking forward to a nice, safe touchdown on Monday.”
The team hopes a pair of CubeSats will provide real-time communication and information to those on Earth, although some milestones will require waiting more than five hours because of orbital dynamics.
A foggy morning greeted the May 5 launch at Vandenberg Air Force Base of the Mars InSight spacecraft aboard an Atlas V rocket. (NASA photo)
InSight will travel from a speed of 12,000 miles per hour as it enters the atmosphere and then slow down to 5 mph in 6½ minutes.
“That’s going to be kind of the main event on Monday,” Grover said.
As InSight descends, the craft first should shed its cruise stage that had supplied power and communications during the trek. The spacecraft tucked inside an aeroshell then is expected to travel through extreme heat, deploy the supersonic parachute to provide braking, drop the heat shield and extend Insight’s legs.
Less than a mile above the surface of Mars, InSight then should dump its parachute and freefall before the descent engines should fire for more braking in what’s intended to be a soft landing.
“There’s a little bit of time where the dust will have been generated, so we’ll wait for that to settle,” Grover said.
Solar arrays — crafted by a Goleta-based team at Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, formerly part of Orbital ATK — should deploy 16 minutes after landing.
Unfurling those solar arrays should take another 16 minutes, completing the first critical milestone and ensuring the spacecraft has power by about 30 minutes after arrival.
“It is quite an effort to get those all installed, and then they furl up like a Chinese fan, if you will, tucked up under the lander,” Stu Spath of Lockeed Martin Space said.
Plumbing the depths of Mars
Once InSight is on Mars, it is scheduled to remain at one location, where scientists hope to collect information about the interior of the rocky planet, data they say will help educate them about the formation of Earth. That will include using a seismometer on the satellite to assess seismic waves created by Marsquakes.
“A seismometer allows us to look deep into the planet and understand the detailed structure,” said Bruce Banerdt, InSight’s principal investigator at JPL.
A mole also is expected to dig 10 to 16 feet into Mars to provide data about the temperature of the planet.
InSight is designed to operate for one Mars year, or 26 Earth months.
Soon after arrival, InSight is expected to take a picture to show scientists the view of the landing site, but the science mission should start about three months later since the craft will need to unpack its instruments.
“Just getting to the surface of Mars and getting our solar arrays unfurled is not enough,” said Tom Hoffman, InSight project manager at JPL.“We actually have to take the instruments off the deck and put them on the Martian surface.”