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  InSight to Mars: Viewing, questions, comments

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Author Topic:   InSight to Mars: Viewing, questions, comments
Robert Pearlman
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posted 08-20-2012 04:41 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
InSight to Mars: mission viewing, questions, comments
This thread is intended for comments and questions regarding NASA's InSight mission to Mars and the updates published under the topic: NASA InSight lander to probe Mars' interior.

InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) is a NASA Discovery Program mission that will place a single geophysical lander on Mars to study its deep interior. But InSight is more than a Mars mission β€” it is a terrestrial planet explorer that will address one of the most fundamental issues of planetary and solar system science β€” understanding the processes that shaped the rocky planets of the inner solar system (including Earth) more than four billion years ago.

By using sophisticated geophysical instruments, InSight will delve deep beneath the surface of Mars, detecting the fingerprints of the processes of terrestrial planet formation, as well as measuring the planet's "vital signs": Its "pulse" (seismology), "temperature" (heat flow probe), and "reflexes" (precision tracking).

Blackarrow
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posted 08-20-2012 04:41 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Blackarrow     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Seriously? Sixth lander in a row which ISN'T designed to look for signs of life? This one even seems to have the ability to dig down a respectable distance to escape the ultraviolet "death zone." To use what I believe to be the American vernacular: "Way to skirt around the big question!"

Robert Pearlman
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posted 08-20-2012 04:50 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
My guess, and it's just that, is that the tools needed to definitively answer the life question are too expensive to fit within a cost-capped Discovery-class mission.

On edit: To put the budget into some perspective, per NASA, the InSight mission cannot afford to fly a color camera, if only for outreach reasons. The lander will only have two black and white engineering cameras, similar in resolution quality and field of view to Spirit's and Opportunity's NavCam and HazCam.

Fra Mauro
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posted 08-21-2012 12:05 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Fra Mauro   Click Here to Email Fra Mauro     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Interesting choice. I like the mission but I wonder if one reason it was chosen was to quell the critics that the Administration is shutting down the Mars program. Do we know which choices lost out? It's been awhile since we have been to Venus.

Robert Pearlman
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posted 08-21-2012 12:17 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
As the press release notes:
The other two proposals were for missions to a comet and Saturn's moon Titan.
Specifically, the missions were Comet Hopper (CHopper), which would have studied the evolution of 46P/Wirtanen by landing on the comet multiple times and observing its changes as it interacts with the sun, and Titan Mare Explorer (TiME), which would have provided the first direct exploration of an ocean environment beyond Earth by landing in, and floating on, a large methane-ethane sea on Saturn's moon Titan.

John Grunsfeld said yesterday that InSight was chosen over the other two because it was thought to have the best chance of keeping to the $425 million budget and making its launch date in 2016.

Blackarrow
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posted 08-21-2012 04:20 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Blackarrow     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I'm going to make a prediction: it will get a colour camera. NASA has learnt its PR lessons.

Gorgon
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posted 09-03-2012 07:50 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Gorgon   Click Here to Email Gorgon     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
quote:
Originally posted by Blackarrow:
I'm going to make a prediction: it will get a colour camera. NASA has learnt its PR lessons.
Well, for the general public, InSight won't have much of an impact, color pics or not. Most people will just think "yet ANOTHER one to Mars? Stop wasting my taxes".

I think TiME was a much better choice. Far more PR impact for average Joe for about the same cost (alien oceans!!!), while having the benefit of keeping research into Titan alive. InSight could have flown later in this decade and no one would loose anything, while the window of opportunity for Titan for about US500 million is now lost for next 20 years or so.

Anyway, don't want to hijack this thread for ranting.

Blackarrow
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posted 09-03-2012 03:25 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Blackarrow     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
quote:
Originally posted by Gorgon:
InSight could have flown later in this decade and no one would lose anything, while the window of opportunity for Titan for about US500 million is now lost for next 20 years or so.
Why? Something to do with orbital mechanics?

Gorgon
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posted 09-05-2012 02:48 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Gorgon   Click Here to Email Gorgon     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
In a way, yes. The thing is that if we launched in the present time window TiME would not need a data relay orbiter because it would be able to communicate directly with Earth for a few hours. It would be a short mission like Huygens but it would be within US500 million. If we launch it in the next 20 years or so we could make it last for years but we would need the orbiter, making it 2 or 3 times more expensive. This last option means great science but it also means that we probably will never see it fly, given NASA's "obsession" with Mars right now and the significantly higher budget needed.

InSight is a great mission with great scientific interest, no doubt, but it could have been flown at any time we want for the same price, thus in my opinion it was the wrong decision.

You can more details here (it's a really nice blog, by the way).

Robert Pearlman
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posted 12-22-2015 09:58 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Dan Leone with SpaceNews is reporting that InSight won't be launching in 2016:
NASA's InSight won't launch in March as planned due to a problem with a CNES-built instrument. More after a 3:30 p.m. EST presser.
On Dec. 4, NASA reported that the vacuum container carrying the main sensors for CNES' Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) was leaking.

A delay would push InSight's launch out to 2018 for favorable Earth-Mars geometry.

Robert Pearlman
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Peter B. de Selding with SpaceNews followed up with CNES president Jean-Yves Le Gall:
We're not giving up resolving NASA Mars InSight lander instrument leak; we have till 5 January to nail it down.

We're not 100% sure that the leak [in] Mars InSight SEIS instrument isn't [a] leak-measure issue rather than actual leak. We took three InSight SEIS leak measures, all with identical results. That's odd if it's a real leak; could be false positive.

Robert Pearlman
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posted 12-22-2015 03:20 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
NASA confirmed the delay:
After thorough examination, NASA managers have decided to suspend the planned March 2016 launch of the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission. The decision follows unsuccessful attempts to repair a leak in a section of the prime instrument in the science payload.

Headshot
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posted 12-24-2015 10:42 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Headshot   Click Here to Email Headshot     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Who made the decision to farm out the SIES to CNES? NASA, JPL, or Lockheed Martin?

Robert Pearlman
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posted 12-24-2015 11:27 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
It wasn't farmed out; CNES's involvement was part of the original proposal for the mission. CNES and its partners are providing SEIS because the French have been leaders in the development of highly-sensitive seismometers. To quote John Grunsfeld:
Our partners at the French space agency are some of the world's experts in this technology.
SEIS is a cutting-edge science instrument that has benefited from years of research by the French. As NASA's Jim Green explains:
This is a design that has been developed over about two decades in France. It's a very complex and very difficult system to design and build.
And to be clear, the instrument itself works. It is only the titanium case (sphere) that surrounds the sensors and holds the vacuum that is the problem. Again, Green:
The sensors themselves, electronics, all of the systems of this instrument performed flawlessly in the testing. The problem has been in this vacuum enclosure.

It is not that exotic of a technology to maintain a vacuum. The difficulty comes in being able to build a vacuum system that can maintain its integrity with the very harsh conditions on Mars β€” the very cold temperatures, the survival of the vibrations from the launch and the landing.

Headshot
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posted 12-25-2015 08:19 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Headshot   Click Here to Email Headshot     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
The problem I am having is that someone dropped the ball on a relatively simple issue and now the entire mission is in jeopardy.

While the seismometer itself apparently works properly, as Robert wrote, to produce meaningful results it must be contained in a vacuumized container. Manufacturing such a container should NOT require cutting edge technology. Yet the damn thing cannot maintain a vacuum.

This is not in the same league as the reasons behind the JWST or MSL launch delays, yet it has placed the InSight mission in jeopardy. During the next two years or so the spacecraft will be in storage, subject to outright cancellation due to mounting budgetary issues. The issue is not just storing the spacecraft for two years while maintaining its support work force. What about the launch vehicle? Will that be in storage as well? If not, will NASA have to purchase a new vehicle at 2018 prices or will they revert back to 2016 prices? We are getting close to InSight's fiscal ceiling and NASA pointedly did NOT promise that the mission won't be cancelled outright. After all, now we have the issue of a new president during this delay. He or she could easily terminate the whole mission on a whim.

It would have been far more difficult to do something like that if InSight had been launched on schedule and was working on the surface of Mars.

Robert Pearlman
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posted 12-25-2015 08:41 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I think you're still underestimating the challenge that the vacuum sphere presents. To quote Bruce Banerdt, InSight's principal investigator, at JPL:
The vacuum we're maintaining inside the sphere varies. At the very beginning of life, when we first pump it down, it's at about 10^-7 millibars, so that's like less than a billionth of the pressure of the Earth's atmosphere.

From just normal kind of out-gassing of materials inside the sphere, we expect it to raise up a little bit, maybe a thousandth of a millibar and we can operate our seismometers at about a tenth of a millibar, which is again, about a thousandth of the pressure of the Earth's atmosphere.

The leak rate that we were seeing was bringing it up from essentially zero to about two-tenths of a millibar over the course of a few days. So even today, we still have less than a ten-thousandth atmosphere of pressure in there, which is by most standards, a pretty darn good vacuum, but for our purposes we need a better vacuum than that.

The eight to nine inch sphere has welds, as well as ports used to draw the vacuum and to connect the device to the spacecraft. The welds have been re-welded and the connections have been checked and re-checked (addressing earlier leaks) and they still haven't been able to identify the source of the current leak.

The way NASA and CNES described it, it does not sound like someone "dropped the ball" but that it is just a very difficult piece of hardware to perfect, and that the current leak was only discovered very recently.

As for the launch vehicle, NASA's Jim Green said that the agency still needed to get with United Launch Alliance to work out the situation.

SpaceAholic
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posted 12-25-2015 08:51 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for SpaceAholic   Click Here to Email SpaceAholic     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
The question is why poor vacuum integrity was not fully detected until close to launch. That speaks more to an issue with test/evaluation methodology.

Robert Pearlman
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posted 12-25-2015 09:14 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
The sphere was sealed for flight earlier this year, which is when the first of the leaks was discovered and addressed.

The later leaks, including the current one, were found during the final environmental tests in France before SEIS was set to ship to the United States for integration with InSight.

Headshot
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posted 03-10-2017 05:08 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Headshot   Click Here to Email Headshot     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Have there been any updates as to the progress of fixing the vacuum enclosure for InSight's seismic experiment package?

Robert Pearlman
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posted 03-29-2017 06:33 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
InSight's Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure instrument cleared a major test last week after engineers redesigned part of the sensor package, boosting confidence that the mission will be ready to launch in May 2018, reports Spaceflight Now.
Engineers finished qualification testing of an engineering model of the redesigned enclosure a few months ago, and last week they completed vacuum leak testing of the flight model that will go to Mars, according to Bruce Banerdt, InSight's principal investigator at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

JPL took over redesigning and testing the seismometer enclosure, while CNES remains in charge of developing the sensors themselves, integration of the sensors into the container, and final installation of the instrument on the lander.

The tests of the flight model of the enclosure checked its pressure integrity at room temperature and at the temperatures it will encounter at the Martian surface, Banerdt wrote in an email to Spaceflight Now.

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posted 03-29-2017 07:56 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Headshot   Click Here to Email Headshot     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Thanks for the report/update.

I am curious to know if there are comparison images of the French vs the JPL version of the vacuum chamber? Did JPL have to change the configuration of the chamber, use different materials, or both, to achieve the required vacuum seal?

Robert Pearlman
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posted 08-29-2017 11:33 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Lockheed Martin 360-degree video
Get a unique perspective of the InSight spacecraft coming out of it’s shipping container in our Littleton, Colo. clean room. InSight is the first mission to focus on examining the deep interior of Mars. Information gathered will boost understanding of how all rocky planets formed, including Earth.

Robert Pearlman
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posted 08-29-2017 11:45 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
quote:
Originally posted by Headshot:
I am curious to know if there are comparison images of the French vs the JPL version of the vacuum chamber?
Here is a NASA/Lockheed Martin photo:
The Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) instrument for NASA's InSight mission to Mars undergoes a checkout for the spacecraft's assembly, test and launch operations (ATLO) in this photo taken July 20, 2017, in a Lockheed Martin clean room facility in Littleton, Colorado.

Robert Pearlman
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posted 10-03-2017 12:28 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
There is still time to send your name on Insight to Mars.
Last Day to Submit: November 1, 2017 (11:59 p.m. ET)

Mike Dixon
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posted 01-23-2018 11:03 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Mike Dixon   Click Here to Email Mike Dixon     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
...engineers added a final touch: a microchip inscribed with more than 1.6 million names submitted by the public. It joins a chip containing almost 827,000 names that was glued to the top of InSight back in 2015, adding up to a total of about 2.4 million names going to Mars.
Reading this, it prompted me to recall the international invitations to add one's name to unmanned spacecraft. New Horizons, Mars Phoenix Polar Lander, etc. Great idea. Has this practice ceased or stalled?

Robert Pearlman
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posted 01-23-2018 11:07 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
As you note, NASA has offered the opportunity to fly your name with just about every one of its robotic missions of late. At present, we are in a lull between new missions (after Insight). It is expected there will be similar opportunities on the Mars 2020 rover and Orion EM-1.

Mike Dixon
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posted 01-23-2018 11:23 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Mike Dixon   Click Here to Email Mike Dixon     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Thanks Rob, my error.

cspg
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posted 03-01-2018 09:19 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for cspg   Click Here to Email cspg     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Why launch from the West coast?

Robert Pearlman
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posted 03-01-2018 09:39 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
From a recent NASA release:
All of NASA's interplanetary launches to date have been from Florida, in part because the physics of launching off the East Coast are better for journeys to other planets. But InSight will break the mold by launching from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. It will be the first launch to another planet from the West Coast.

InSight will ride on top of a powerful Atlas V 401 rocket, which allows for a planetary trajectory to Mars from either coast. Vandenberg was ultimately chosen because it had more availability during InSight's launch period.

A whole new region will get to see an interplanetary launch when InSight rockets into the sky. In a clear, pre-dawn sky, the launch may be visible in California from Santa Maria to San Diego.

cspg
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posted 03-01-2018 10:12 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for cspg   Click Here to Email cspg     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
It has nothing to do with orbital mechanics then. Thanks.

Robert Pearlman
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posted 03-22-2018 10:50 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
NASA release
NASA Mars Mission Tours California

Scientists and engineers with NASA's next mission to Mars will be touring California cities starting this month.

NASA's InSight mission will be the first interplanetary launch from the West Coast. In preparation for its May launch, the Mars InSight Roadshow is stopping at cities along the earthquake-prone California coast to explain how the robotic lander will study Mars' deep interior using seismology and other geophysical measurements.

The Roadshow brings family-friendly science activities, exhibits and public talks to communities throughout California, making comparisons between earthquakes and the marsquakes that InSight will try to detect. The Roadshow will also partner with local and national organizations along the way, promoting planetary science and showing the benefits of NASA earthquake data gathered by Earth-observing satellites. All the museums are members of the NASA Museum Alliance.

InSight's launch window opens May 5 at Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc, northwest of Santa Barbara. InSight stands for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport. It will be the first mission to study the deep interior of Mars, using an ultra-sensitive seismometer, a heat-flow probe and other instruments. InSight is led by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

What to Expect:

  • "Make Your Own Marsquake" demo, in which members of the public jump and see seismometer readings on a screen
  • Interviews with NASA scientists and engineers
  • Colorful backdrops and selfie stations
  • Models of the InSight spacecraft
  • Mars globe "cutaways" showing the interior of Mars
  • Virtual reality headsets used to see panoramas of Mars
Who to Expect:
  • Members of InSight's mission and science teams
  • JPL's Mars public engagement team
  • NASA Solar System Ambassadors
Tour Dates:

The following dates are confirmed. Additional dates, including ones in Southern California, will be added.

  • March 30-31, Redding, CA
    Turtle Bay Exploration Park, Exhibit

  • March 30, Redding, CA
    Shasta Union High School District's David Marr Theater, Public Talk

  • April 13-15, Sacramento, CA
    Powerhouse Science Center, Exhibit

  • April 18-22 (Media Day on April 18), San Francisco, CA
    Exploratorium, Exhibits and Public Talks

  • April 27-29, San Luis Obispo, CA
    San Luis Obispo Children's Museum, Exhibit

  • April 28, San Luis Obispo, CA
    Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Public Talk

  • May 2-3, Santa Maria, CA
    Santa Maria Valley Discovery Museum, Exhibit

  • May 2, Lompoc, CA
    Dick DeWees Community & Senior Center, Exhibit

  • May 3, Lompoc, CA
    Lompoc Public Library, Public Talk

  • May 4, Santa Maria, CA
    Allan Hancock College, Exhibit and Public Talk

  • May 19, Santa Barbara, CA
    Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, Exhibit

Blackarrow
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posted 04-03-2018 05:29 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Blackarrow     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
From a NASA release:
It also will be the first NASA mission since the Apollo moon landings to place a seismometer, a device that measures quakes, on the soil of another planet.
That's a bit of a stretch. Vikings 1 and 2 landed on Mars in 1976 both included seismometers.

It is splitting hairs to say they weren't actually in touch with the soil of Mars. The instruments were built into the Viking landers, whose legs were in contact with Martian soil. Any seismic events were transmitted through the landing-legs and the structure of the landers.

Robert Pearlman
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posted 04-06-2018 09:02 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
NASA acknowledges the Viking seismometers in the InSight press kit, while pointing out why the distinction matters.
Both Viking landers had their seismometers on top of the spacecraft, where they produced noisy data. InSight's seismometer will be placed directly on the Martian surface, which will provide much cleaner data.

Blackarrow
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posted 04-06-2018 08:13 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Blackarrow     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I still think NASA is splitting hairs, but I acknowledge that the location of InSight's seismometer will allow direct contact with the ground.

If it lands successfully.

SpaceAngel
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posted 05-05-2018 08:25 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for SpaceAngel   Click Here to Email SpaceAngel     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Why launch out of Vandenburg AFB instead of Cape Canaveral, Florida like all the rest of the planetary missions?

Blackarrow
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I couldn't help wondering why InSight was being launched from Vandenberg rather than KSC. A little research suggests that KSC is getting very busy, so with a planetary launch with a fixed launch-window, it's better not to have too many other launches looking for slots.

Also, InSight could have flown on a Delta 2 if that option was still available, but since it isn't, the next option is Atlas V, which has enough reserve power to accommodate the less-than-ideal southerly launch trajectory (necessary to avoid endangering inhabited land).

That's all very well, but InSight was originally planned for a Vandenberg launch in March, 2016. Was KSC as busy then? Was Delta 2 unavailable? Were there any other factors not mentioned above?

How much more complicated is it to launch a probe to Mars if you start with a nearly-southerly trajectory? I assume this requires a fairly drastic "dog-leg manoeuvre" to put InSight into the plane of Mars' orbit?

Robert Pearlman
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posted 05-05-2018 08:34 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
quote:
Originally posted by SpaceAngel:
Why launch out of Vandenburg AFB instead of Cape Canaveral...
We have a full article on this very subject, published two days ago.
quote:
Originally posted by Blackarrow:
Was KSC as busy then? Was Delta 2 unavailable?
The type of launch vehicle and the location of the launch is proposed by the launch provider.

In this case, United Launch Alliance's bid to launch InSight in 2016 included the Atlas V 401 because the Delta II was already in the process of being retired and Vandenberg because congestion at the Cape was expected during the launch window. The mission was not moved to Cape Canaveral after the delay to 2018 because there was no need to do so.

quote:
I assume this requires a fairly drastic "dog-leg manoeuvre" to put InSight into the plane of Mars' orbit?
No drastic maneuvers required, as JPL mission analyst Mark Wallace, the designer of InSight's trajectory, explained on Twitter (also cited in the above linked article).
Earth is going 30 km/s. An Atlas can add a few km/s to that, in a direction we choose. We have to choose carefully or we won't get to Mars.

Earth and Mars are in nearly the same plane, but not exactly. So we have to aim a bit out of the plane to get there. Add in Earth's tilt, and you get a parameter we call the declination, or "DLA." Even a smallish plane change can lead to a big DLA, alas.

In order to escape Earth in the right direction efficiently, the park orbit inclination needs to be less than the DLA. But that's all.

A polar orbit can get to any DLA. How, you ask? Consider a polar orbit. As it goes around, the velocity goes from pointing "up" at equator to "horizontally" at the poles. When the departure burn happens, how far "up" or "down" the velocity is pointing becomes the DLA. Voila, a polar orbit can reach any DLA!

Robert Pearlman
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posted 05-11-2018 01:32 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
United Launch Alliance video release
ULA's Atlas V rocket blasted off on May 5, 2018, with NASA's InSight mission to Mars. Here's what it looked like from the rocket's perspective.

Robert Pearlman
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posted 05-17-2018 08:32 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
NASA release
A Pale Blue Dot, As Seen by a CubeSat

NASA's Voyager 1 took a classic portrait of Earth from several billion miles away in 1990. Now a class of tiny, boxy spacecraft, known as CubeSats, have just taken their own version of a "pale blue dot" image, capturing Earth and its moon in one shot.

Above: The first image captured by one of NASA's Mars Cube One (MarCO) CubeSats. The image, which shows both the CubeSat's unfolded high-gain antenna at right and the Earth and its moon in the center, was acquired by MarCO-B on May 9. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA set a new distance record for CubeSats on May 8 when a pair of CubeSats called Mars Cube One (MarCO) reached 621,371 miles (1 million kilometers) from Earth. One of the CubeSats, called MarCO-B (and affectionately known as "Wall-E" to the MarCO team) used a fisheye camera to snap its first photo on May 9. That photo is part of the process used by the engineering team to confirm the spacecraft's high-gain antenna has properly unfolded.

As a bonus, it captured Earth and its moon as tiny specks floating in space.

"Consider it our homage to Voyager," said Andy Klesh, MarCO's chief engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. JPL built the CubeSats and leads the MarCO mission. "CubeSats have never gone this far into space before, so it's a big milestone. Both our CubeSats are healthy and functioning properly. We're looking forward to seeing them travel even farther."

The MarCO spacecraft are the first CubeSats ever launched to deep space. Most never go beyond Earth orbit; they generally stay below 497 miles (800 kilometers) above the planet. Though they were originally developed to teach university students about satellites, CubeSats are now a major commercial technology, providing data on everything from shipping routes to environmental changes.

The MarCO CubeSats were launched on May 5 along with NASA's InSight lander, a spacecraft that will touch down on Mars and study the planet's deep interior for the first time. InSight, short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, will attempt to land on Mars on Nov. 26. JPL also leads the InSight mission.

Mars landings are notoriously challenging due to the Red Planet's thin atmosphere. The MarCO CubeSats will follow along behind InSight during its cruise to Mars. Should they make it all the way to Mars, they will radio back data about InSight while it enters the atmosphere and descends to the planet's surface. The high-gain antennas are key to that effort; the MarCO team have early confirmation that the antennas have successfully deployed, but will continue to test them in the weeks ahead.

InSight won't rely on the MarCO mission for data relay. That job will fall to NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. But the MarCOs could be a pathfinder so that future missions can "bring their own relay" to Mars. They could also demonstrate a number of experimental technologies, including their antennas, radios and propulsion systems, which will allow CubeSats to collect science in the future.

Later this month, the MarCOs will attempt the first trajectory correction maneuvers ever performed by CubeSats. This maneuver lets them steer towards Mars, blazing a trail for CubeSats to come.

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