In the morning hours before NASA's InSight spacecraft entered the atmosphere of Mars, about 30 Lockheed Martin employees gathered in the support area for the company's InSight mission in Denver. Everyone wore the same red button shirt adorned with a mission sticker. Someone had taped red plastic over some of the fluorescent lights to lend the room a Martian feel. As the last few hours passed before InSight violated the atmosphere of Mars and headed for the surface, there was not much to do except wait and worry.
Engineers had sent the landing sequence commands to the spacecraft days ago, where they now sat on board like small bombs, waiting for the right moment to execute. "We can not joystick," says Tim Linn, the leader for the landing, landing and descent of the spacecraft. The time it takes to travel from Earth to the landing area is longer than it takes for the spacecraft to land on the surface of Mars, so everything is preprogrammed.
In California, in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, scientists and engineers handled mission and navigation management while Lockheed commanded spacecraft operations. This includes the pre-sent commands to set NASA's InSight lander safely on Mars. And today is their big day: Six months after the probe left Earth, it is coming to the Red Planet – hopefully with a soft plop and not a bang. The staff have done a lot of work to make sure this last option does not happen, but, you know, it's Mars. It is far and strange, and only about 40% of the spacecraft that intended to reach Mars did so successfully.
Behind Linn's head, on a giant screen, a chart showed InSight Doppler data, red and blue scribbles indicating its speed. "At this point, we can not have hiccups," he says, looking around the room at the clusters of cubicles where team members perched silently in front of their computers. Rounded top labels, each with a Mars-printed image as background, declare different sections of the room to be dedicated to Terrestrial Data Systems or Fault Protection or Flight Software. Many of the people now occupying the screens actually helped build the spacecraft. Sarah Brandt, an energy systems engineer, spent three months living at Vandenberg Air Force Base to help prepare the spacecraft for launch. Today, she says, it looks like Christmas morning. Presents with certainty: But also the agonizing anticipated waiting.
Much of Space Flight Is waiting. The nearly 800-pound vessel was launched in May, and has been heading toward Mars since then. InSight – a backwood of "Exploring Interiors Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy, and Heat Transport" – will help scientists understand how rocky planets form here in the solar system as well as the rest of the universe.
The first hundred million years of a planet's existence determine many of its more mature personality traits: what they are made of, what their atmospheres are, if a magnetic field surrounds their surroundings. Mars kept the remnants of these early processes in a way that the Earth, with its regular geological reforms, failed.
InSight intends to understand them. It has an instrument that measures seismic activity (and captures reverberations of meteorite impacts), a type of thermometer that is 16 feet below the surface of Mars, and a device that will take stock of the rotation of the Red Planet. But before these instruments could do their job, they had to make the long voyage to Mars – an arduous journey, no matter how many times humans have sent spacecraft there.
InSight was safe enough in the long space vacuum, but it had a last-mile problem: how to traverse the atmosphere to safely descend into the ground. Ensuring the final stage of its transit was largely the work of Lockheed engineers, who led the design and manufacturing of InSight, including equipment that slows down at 12,300 miles per hour when it enters the atmosphere, zero at the surface .
At the point of entry, the InSight heat shield is facing forward to protect its sensitive parts as the heat rises to 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit. Friction of this part of the trip slows InSight to less than 1,000 miles per hour. Then a parachute is fired and the heat shield falls. InSight's three legs leave as members of the turtles and a radar system scans the surface. A rear shield attached to the parachute drops, and InSight fires its thrusters.
Just kidding! At any stage of this process, the mission may go sideways and there is nothing anyone from Lockheed or JPL can do. Until engineers receive the news that InSight has entered the Mars atmosphere, it has landed or crashed.
As the time of entry He approached, a small blue dot representing the InSight trimmed closer and closer to a Mars pictured on a prominent Lockheed screen. Another exhibition listed the final milestones of the trip and separated them methodically. People clustered in front of the screens, murmuring.
A voice from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory passed through the loudspeakers in Denver. According to the audio, two small satellites that traveled with InSight, together called the MarCO mission, seemed to be working. Their job was to pick up InSight pings and send their contents back to Earth. Radio telescopes on Earth also collected some transmissions from the lander.
Soon, the spacecraft was entering the atmosphere. "Blackout is possible during peak heating," the voice warns. An illustrated version of InSight, resembling a robust coffee filter, appeared on a screen titled "Predicted Performance Simulation." The Martian horizon curved beneath her.
The voice read InSight's speed: 2,000 meters per second. 1,000 meters per second. The parachute will be deployed soon, she says. But the only way to know if this happened is to observe a sudden change in velocity, a markedly different Doppler shift in the signal.
Then, when the voice says "Sudden Doppler shift," the whole room beats for a brief second and then stands still.
"The radar is starting to look for the ground … 30 meters … 20 meters … 17 meters … waiting to land."
And then it comes: Touchdown.
The brown-shirt engineers began clapping again and soon grew louder. Handshakes gave way to a V-victory. Woos turned into full throat cries.
Someone's voice, rising above the noise, says, "It never gets easier."
More detailed information about InSight's journey and fitness is expected to arrive shortly from the Mars orbiting spacecraft Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odyssey. Odyssey must confirm that InSight has successfully deployed its solar panels, which will be needed to keep it alive now that it has landed safely. This data will reach Lockheed just one floor below InSight's control room in another area called Deep Space Mission Operations.
Walls the size of a planet adorn this downstairs room where engineers also operate spacecraft such as the Spitzer Space Telescope and OSIRIS-REX, an asteroid return mission that will arrive at its destination next month, in addition to those two orbiters of Mars. "How many times have we landed on Mars?" Says Beth Buck, the mission's operations program manager, who at least has a chance to land on Mars more often than most people do.
After InSight lands safely, Buck leaves the room and walks through a wall covered with InSight art and facts. An item in the gallery listed today's date: November 26, 2018. Landing day. Before, it had symbolic meaning – as a kind of motivational poster, perhaps. Now he has taken on his new identity as a cold and hard fact.
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