Spaceflight Insider

Marsbound!: NASA InSight lander launches toward Red Planet

n a layer of fog, ULA's Atlas V launches NASA's InSight Mars lander toward the Red Planet. Photo Credit: Matthew Kuhns / SpaceFlight Insider

In a layer of fog, ULA’s Atlas V launches NASA’s InSight Mars lander toward the Red Planet. Photo Credit: Matthew Kuhns / SpaceFlight Insider

LOMPOC, Calif. — Initially flying through early-morning fog, a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket lifted off from Vandenberg Air force Base’s Space Launch Complex 3 to send NASA’s Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) lander on a six-month journey to Mars.

Liftoff took place at 4:05 a.m. PDT (7:05 a.m. EDT / 11:05 GMT) May 5, 2018. In the days leading up to the launch, meteorologists with the U.S. Air Force’s 30th Space Wing predicted a 20 percent chance of favorable weather for the launch due to an expected marine layer fog which would reduce visibility. This range safety constraint was the only area of concern.

Photo Credit: Bill Ingalls / NASA

Photo Credit: Bill Ingalls / NASA

While visibility was limited on the morning of May 5, Range Safety waived the visibility requirement after confirming that all ground telemetry systems were operational during the countdown.

“The United States continues to lead the way to Mars with this next exciting mission to study the Red Planet’s core and geological processes,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine in a statement. “I want to congratulate all the teams from NASA and our international partners who made this accomplishment possible. As we continue to gain momentum in our work to send astronauts back to the Moon and on to Mars, missions like InSight are going to prove invaluable.”

This was the first interplanetary flight to launch from the West Coast of the United States. The primary reason for this was because of range availability. While it takes less fuel to achieve orbit from the East Coast, the InSight lander is light enough and the Atlas V powerful enough that it could launch successfully from either side of the continent.

InSight is a 794-pound (360-kilogram) robotic lander designed to study the interior structure of Mars. With its two solar panels deployed the lander is 19 feet 8 inches (6 meters) long. Based on the design of NASA’s 2008 Phoenix lander, the spacecraft is designed to use its eight-foot (2.4 meter) robotic arm to place a seismometer, a wind and thermal shield to protect that instrument and a self-burrowing temperature probe on the Martian surface. The probe will use these science instruments and a radio experiment called RISE to study the deep interior of Mars to learn about how all rocky planets, including the Earth, formed. The InSight mission is part of NASA’s Discovery Program.

“The Discovery Program is all about doing firsts, getting to places that we’ve never been to before, and this mission will probe the interior of another terrestrial planet giving us an idea of the size of the core, the mantle, the crust and our ability to compare that with  the Earth,” said NASA Chief Scientist Jim Green during a NASA pre-launch briefing on May 3. “This is of fundamental importance for us to understand the origin of our solar system and how it became the way is today.”

The countdown for the InSight launch began at 10:14 p.m. PDT May 4 (1:14 a.m. EDT / 05:14 GMT May 5). About 75 minutes later, the 260-foot (80-meter) tall Mobile Service Tower, the structure that sheltered InSight and its Atlas V launch vehicle, started its 20-minute long, 250-foot (about 80 meters) roll away from the rocket. The launch window opened four hours later.

“I’ve been to several rocket launches, but it is a whole different vibe when there is something you’ve been working on for years sitting in the nose cone waiting to get hurled beyond our atmosphere,” said Bruce Banerdt, InSight’s principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). “But as exciting as launch day will be, it’s just a first step in a journey that should tell us not only why Mars formed the way it did, but how planets take shape in general.”

Once the countdown reached zero, the launch vehicle thundered off of the launch pad propelled a single RD-180 engine producing some 860,200 pounds (3.8 million newtons) of thrust. The rocket ascended vertically for the first 17 seconds of powered flight before beginning a yaw and pitch maneuver to put it on a trajectory towards Earth’s South Pole.

InSight was launched at 4:05 a.m. PDT (7:05 a.m. EDT / 11:05 GMT) May 5, 2018. Photo Credit: NASA

InSight was launched at 4:05 a.m. PDT (7:05 a.m. EDT / 11:05 GMT) May 5, 2018. Photo Credit: NASA

The Atlas V reached a speed of Mach One at 1 minute, 18 seconds into its powered flight. At this point, the launch vehicle was approximately 30,000 feet (nine kilometers) in altitude and one mile (1.75 kilometers) down range. The rocket’s first-stage engine shut down 2 minutes, 30 seconds later, at an altitude of approximately 66 miles (106 kilometers) and 184 miles (184 kilometer) downrange.

The rocket’s trajectory took it over the Channels Islands and continued climbing out over the Pacific Ocean, as it shadowed the California coast going southward. Six seconds after the first stage engine shut down, the Centaur upper stage, carrying the InSight spacecraft in a 40-foot (12-meter) long payload fairing separated from the first stage.

Ten seconds later, the Centaur’s RL10 engine ignited to produce some 22,890 pounds (101,820 newtons) of thrust. The stage carrying InSight reached a 110-mile (180-kilometer) parking orbit about 13 minutes into the flight, when the rocket was about 1,200 miles northwest of Isabella Island, Ecuador.

NASA's InSight Mars lander spacecraft in a Lockheed Martin clean room near Denver. Photo Credit: Lockheed Martin

NASA’s InSight Mars lander spacecraft in a Lockheed Martin clean room near Denver. Photo Credit: Lockheed Martin

Just over an hour later, the Centaur stage’s RL-10 re-ignited for a final burn lasting five minutes to place InSight on a Mars-bound trajectory. About nine minutes later, InSight separated.

Next, the twin Mars Cube One (MarCO) CubeSats were ejected from their dispensers on the Centaur stage. They deployed their solar panels and antennas not long after that. The MarCOs are designed to navigate to Mars independently of InSight using onboard star trackers, reaction wheels and a cold-gas propulsion system. They are a technology demonstration mission and the first CubeSats to travel into deep space.

During InSight’s entry, descent and landing (EDL) operations at Mars, the MarCOs should attempt to relay InSight telemetry information back to Earth using their soft-ball-sized radios. This technology demonstration is not mission critical because InSight can also use the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) to relay signals back to Earth.

The missions cruise phase officially began shortly after InSight separated from the Centaur. It will end when the spacecraft is about 60 days from entering the Martian atmosphere. The 301-million-mile (485-million-kilometer) journey to the Red Planet should take about 6.5 months. If all goes according to plan, InSight is expected to land on Mars Nov. 26, 2018.

Those who participated in producing the components for this mission expressed pride in the work done to send InSight on its way.

“Orbital ATK is proud to support the Atlas V rocket and InSight lander with our technologies,” said Mark Pieczynski, Vice President of Business Development for Orbital ATK’s Flight Systems Group via a release issued by the company. “To support future deep space missions, we are working on the boosters for NASA’s Space Launch System, which will enable human exploration of the Moon, Mars and beyond.”

Once the InSight spacecraft reaches the Martian atmosphere and is about 80 miles (about 128 kilometers) above the surface of the Red Planet, the EDL phase will begin. Should everything go as planned, about six-seven minutes later the lander will safely touch down on the surface of Elysium Planitia on Mars.

InSight’s EDL system incorporates a combination of technologies from previous Mars missions including the Phoenix lander. The landing system weighs less than the airbags for NASA’s twin Mars Exploration Rovers or the “skycrane” used by the Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity. The lean landing system allows for a higher ratio of science instruments to launch mass.

Once safely on the surface, the placement of InSight’s science instruments on the Martian surface should take about 10 weeks. The mission team plans to examine terrain surrounding InSight and practice placing the seismometer, wind and thermal shield and Heat Flow and Physical Properties Probe (HP3) using InSight’s Earth-bound twin at JPL on replicated Martian terrain.

Once deployed, the heat probe should take about seven weeks to self-burrow to its full depth of 10-15 feet (3-5 meters). InSight’s primary mission is for one Martian year (about two Earth years)—708 Mars days (called sols) or 728 Earth days.

“Scientists have been dreaming about doing seismology on Mars for years,” Banerdt said. “In my case, I had that dream 40 years ago as a graduate student, and now that shared dream has been lofted through the clouds and into reality.”

Video courtesy of NASA

Video courtesy of SpaceFlight Insider




Jim Sharkey is a lab assistant, writer and general science enthusiast who grew up in Enid, Oklahoma, the hometown of Skylab and Shuttle astronaut Owen K. Garriott. As a young Star Trek fan he participated in the letter-writing campaign which resulted in the space shuttle prototype being named Enterprise. While his academic studies have ranged from psychology and archaeology to biology, he has never lost his passion for space exploration. Jim began blogging about science, science fiction and futurism in 2004. Jim resides in the San Francisco Bay area and has attended NASA Socials for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover landing and the NASA LADEE lunar orbiter launch.

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