Early this morning, the Insight mission launched aboard an Atlas 5 rocket on a trajectory to the planet Mars. This large machine, weighing almost a ton at takeoff, will touch down on the red planet about 6 months from now, with the goal of improving our understanding of the planet's geology and internal makeup. It will be NASA's latest attempt to land on Mars, following the extremely successful Curiosity landing in 2012.
The mission name itself is an incredibly forced acronym: Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport - InSight. NASA really likes acronyms.
As I was at the launch site before dawn to watch this launch in person and was able to attend a talk on this mission a few weeks ago, I decided to write about it. Let's go over what this mission is attempting to do.
Rendering of Insight after landing
Insight Lander and Capabilities
The Insight lander will touch down in November in a very flat part of Mars known as Elysium Planitia. This region has few obstacles (boulders or otherwise) and as such should make for a relatively safe landing site. Unfortunately, missions landing on Mars cannot usually land in any sort of dramatic landscape due to the risks of landing on a slope or hitting a boulder, resulting in most landers arriving in relatively flat planes.
Map of Elysium Planitia
When the spacecraft enters the thin but still significant Martian atmosphere, a large aerodynamic heat shield will protect it from re-entry heating. This will shortly after be ejected, and rocket thrusters onboard the lander will slow the spacecraft down to a gentle landing on the soil of Mars.
Like all NASA science missions, the Insight lander contains various scientific payloads, including ...
HP3: A device used to drill 5 meters down into the surface of Mars, deeper than any other lander has achieved. This payload will also plant temperature sensors along the borehole, with the goal of characterizing the internal heat generation of Mars itself.
RISE: An experiment utilizing the lander's transmitters (typically used to send data back to Earth using the Deep Space Network array of dishes) to pinpoint the location of the Insight lander to within centimeters. That's centimeter level precision, for a lander that is over 55 million kilometers away from Earth at close approach. These measurements will be used to examine the structure of Mars' core.
SEIS: A device that will attempt to measure Mars-quakes with high accuracy. It will also be used to separate various sources of these quakes, including atmospheric effects. The speaker at the Insight talk I attended mentioned that there would actually be a smartphone app available that would track Mars weather using this device, if you're interested.
Various other smaller payloads are also onboard. The overall goal of the mission is to understand how Mars formed along with its current structure. Of course, several color cameras are onboard. All spacecraft should have a camera, in my opinion (I'm still not totally unconvinced that the ESA Mars lander didn't fail because it didn't have a camera...).
The InSight lander was originally supposed to be launched in 2016 but had to be delayed two years (until the next Mars transfer window) due to an instrument failure. Now, in 2018, it has finally launched.
Mars Cube One (MarCO)
Also launched with InSight are two 6U CubeSats, called the Mars Cube One spacecraft. CubeSats are small satellites (made up of a given number of units, or U's, consisting of 10x10x10cm each) that can be built by universities and small companies to conduct research in orbit.
Rendering of the two MarCO spacecraft over Mars
Up until now, no CubeSat has ever left low Earth orbit (approximately 1000km and less above the surface). The MarCO spacecraft broke this record less than an hour and a half into launch. The two MarCO spacecraft will travel to Mars separately from InSight on a slightly different trajectory, controlling their own path using an onboard gas propulsion system. The two small spacecraft were separated from the lander shortly after launch, and as such are essentially flying to Mars alone.
When InSight enters the Martian atmosphere, the two CubeSats will be flying past the planet above the lander, and will be able to receive the radio signal produced by the lander as it descends. This signal will be retransmitted back to Earth, where the mission operators will be able to tell if InSight successfully landed or not several hours earlier than they would have without the MarCO spacecraft. These two tiny spacecraft will also (hopefully) demonstrate that CubeSats can be used outside of low Earth orbit.
I've personally seen several models of these spacecraft, and they're pretty cool. There's a huge folding radio reflector that deploys to allow the spacecraft to send signals the whole hundred million kilometer stretch back home, along with two deployable solar panel arrays for power.
This is a bit off topic, but I'd like to talk about the launch itself because I was actually able to be there in person.
The rocket itself took off at 4:05 AM in California from Vandenberg Air Force base. I had to get up significantly earlier to get down to the base, where we found it to be extremely foggy. The higher elevation overlooks were essentially inside the fog bank, so I ended up watching the launch from the nearby farms in the valley, where it wasn't quite as bad.
The rocket took off on the first try, producing an extremely loud rumbling that fills the valley. The fog was so bad that unfortunately none of us could see the rocket at all, but I could see the entire valley slowly start to light up as the extremely bright rocket (hidden behind fog) rose into the sky. Unfortunately, the only way to actually see the launch due to the fog was to go further south or be on top of a mountain, neither of which we had time to do.
Remote camera view of InSight leaving Earth forever - you can imagine how hard it was to see for us, over a mile north!
It was still definitely worth it though - this was the first interplanetary mission to launch from the west coast of the United States, so I didn't want to miss it being so close by. On that note, if you ever find yourself in California, I'd highly recommend checking to see if Vandenberg is launching anything, because the launches are absolutely spectacular when there isn't fog (at night, it will be bright as day for ~20 seconds when the rocket takes off).
It really is quite insane how fast rockets go. As we drove away from the launch site, the livestream reported that InSight was passing over the tip of Baja California, 1000 miles away ... less than 15 minutes after it took off a mile south of us.
As it stands, InSight and the MarCO CubeSats are approximately 0.01 AU (~1.5 million kilometers) from Earth on a trajectory to Mars (you can check this yourself using the JPL Horizons space object tracking tool here. All three spacecraft will have to use their onboard thrusters occasionally to ensure they actually reach the red planet, and they've still got a long ways to go.
Let me know if you have any questions, corrections, or comments.
Thanks for reading!