Tag Archives: InSight

The two Mars cubesats flying in formation with InSight

Even as the InSight lander heads to Mars, it is being accompanied by two test cubesats, the first such smallsats to ever fly an interplanetary mission.

The MARCO mission objective is a challenging one. The team will provide a dedicated relay during Mars InSight’s descent to the surface of the Red Planet on November 26, 2018. Rather than entering orbit, the CubeSats will pass 2,175 miles (3,500 kilometers) from Mars during the larger mission’s crucial landing phase. Mars will be 97.5 million miles (157 million kilometers) away at the time, making for an 8.7-light-minute communications lag from Mars to the Earth. The lag means that NASA engineers will need to wait 8.7 minutes to see whether the landing was successful, equivalent to Curiosity’s “seven minutes of terror;” meanwhile, if all goes well, MARCO will have a front-row seat to the show. While the success of the InSight mission isn’t dependent on MARCO, the CubeSats will provide a black box data recorder of all aspects of the mission’s descent.

If these cubesats succeed in accomplishing their engineering test missions, their true innovation will not be engineering but cost reduction. If they prove that cubesats can be designed as interplanetary probes, the costs to build and launch such missions will be drastically reduced. Not only do cubesats routinely use cheaper off-the-shelf components, they are far lighter than standard satellites, which means a smaller, cheaper rocket can launch them.

The data-relay test of these cubesats however is quite important, nonetheless. See my post above.

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Atlas 5 successfully launches Mars lander InSight

ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket early this morning successfully launched NASA’s newest Mars lander InSight.

InSight will drill a seismic probe into the Martian surface and monitor earthquake activity. This will be the first time such monitoring will occur, and the probe is planned to do it for at least two years.

The launch puts the U.S. back in a tie with China for the lead in launches this year. The standings:

13 China
8 SpaceX
5 Russia
5 ULA

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The landing site of NASA’s next Mars lander

InSight's landing site on Mars

InSight, NASA’s next Mars lander scheduled to launch later this year (two years late), is aiming for a landing site in a region called Elysium Planitia, a flat plain north of the equator.

InSight’s scientific success and safe landing depends on landing in a relatively flat area, with an elevation low enough to have sufficient atmosphere above the site for a safe landing. It also depends on landing in an area where rocks are few in number. Elysium Planitia has just the right surface for the instruments to be able to probe the deep interior, and its proximity to the equator ensures that the solar-powered lander is exposed to plenty of sunlight.

The target area is centered at 4.5 N latitude and 135.9 East longitude. If you zoom in on that latitude and longitude at the archive of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) high resolution images, you get the red blob on the right, which shows how many images they have taken of this area in preparation for InSight’s mission. The X indicates the location of lat/long above.

Below the fold is a reduced version of the MRO image for the center of this target area. The black spots near the center are thought to be a recent crater impact site. In general, this image shows an area with more features than the region around it. Most of the landing area of Elysium Planitia is a featureless flat plain with scattered small craters. Since InSight is not a rover, where it lands will be where it does its research, so there was no reason to pick a site with lots of interesting surface features. Moreover, since InSight is focused not on studying the surface but the interior geology of Mars, it matters little what the surface looks like anyway. One instrument will be a seismograph, while another will insert a thermometer about sixteen feet into the ground to measure the interior temperature.
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NASA sets InSight’s new launch date to Mars

NASA has now set 2018 as the new launch date for its Mars InSight mission.

The mission was originally supposed to launch in 2016, but missed that launch window when significant problems cropped up during construction of the spacecraft’s French-built prime instrument. NASA has now taken much of the responsibility for building that instrument away from the French and given it to JPL.

The SEIS instrument — designed to measure ground movements as small as half the radius of a hydrogen atom — requires a perfect vacuum seal around its three main sensors in order to withstand harsh conditions on the Red Planet. Under what’s known as the mission “replan,” NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, will be responsible for redesigning, developing and qualifying the instrument’s evacuated container and the electrical feedthroughs that failed previously. France’s space agency, the Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES), will focus on developing and delivering the key sensors for SEIS, integration of the sensors into the container, and the final integration of the instrument onto the spacecraft.

The cost for the changes and reschedule is estimated to be more than $150 million, adding to the budget strain in NASA’s science programs already caused by the overruns from the James Webb Space Telescope.

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The cost of delaying the Mars InSight mission two years

NASA now estimates that it will cost about $150 million to delay the troubled InSight Mars lander two years until 2018 in order to fix the spacecraft’s primary instrument.

The extra money has to come out of the planetary program, which suggests that NASA will be forced to only fund one new planetary mission this year rather than the hoped-for two.

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NASA reschedules rather than cancels InSight

Forced to delay its launch because its primary instrument, built by the French, would not be ready for its 2016 launch, NASA has decided to go on with the InSight Mars mission, rescheduling it for a May 2018 launch, rather than cancelling it outright.

The seismometer, built by the French space agency CNES, will be repaired in time to make the 2018 launch window, said Jim Green, the head of NASA’s planetary sciences division in Washington DC. “That’s terrific news,” he told a planetary sciences advisory panel on 9 March. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, will assume responsibility for building a new vacuum enclosure for the seismometer.

The last sentence above suggests that NASA has decided to take certain responsibilities from the French to make sure they get done right. It also means that the cost will be born by the NASA’s planetary program, cutting into other possible future missions.

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InSight Mars mission suspended

Because of a serious technical problem with its prime instrument, NASA has decided that its InSight Mars lander will not make its March 2016 launch window and has suspended the mission.

NASA said the decision to delay follows unsuccessful attempts to repair a leak affecting the device, which requires a vacuum seal around its three main sensors to withstand the harsh conditions of the Martian environment. A leak discovered earlier this year, that prevented it from retaining vacuum conditions, was successfully repaired, and the mission team “was hopeful the most recent fix also would be successful.”

However, the instrument once again failed to hold a vacuum during testing on Monday in extreme cold temperature.

It is even possible that the mission will be cancelled entirely because of the problem.

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French Mars’ instrument repair looks good

The head of France’s space agency announced today that repairs to their instrument for NASA’s InSight Mars lander will be completed in time to ship the instrument to the U.S. in time for the scheduled March launch.

Briefing reporters here at the COP21 United Nations Climate Change Conference, Jean-Yves Le Gall said the leak, which compromised the required high-precision vacuum chamber carrying InSight sensors, was caused by a defective weld that is applied to close off the tank.

The leak’s cause has been identified and a new weld performed, Le Gall said. Tests to confirm the new weld’s integrity are underway and, assuming no problems, will be completed in time to ship the instrument to the United States in the first week of January. It will then be integrated into the InSight lander in preparation for the March launch.

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NASA Mars lander might miss 2016 launch window.

A leaking French instrument planned for NASA’s next Martian lander, InSight, might force the spacecraft to miss its launch window next March.

The instrument is still in France. If they can’t get the problem solved they can’t install it on the spacecraft. With a launch window only four months away time is running out.

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NASA to launch first interplanetary cubesats

The competition heats up: When it launches its next Mars mission, a stationary lander, NASA will piggyback two cubesats, designed to fly past Mars and relay communications during the landing.

As I’ve noted earlier, standardized small cubesats are the future of unmanned satellite operations. Expect them to increasingly replace all types of larger satellites. And because they are small and cheap (both to make and launch), expect them to lead to a burst of new capitalistic activity in space.

Update: In related news, a small private company has delivered to NASA the first thrusters designed for cubesats. Up until now, cubesats have not been maneuverable. These thrusters will change that.

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NASA picks landing site for next Mars lander

NASA scientists have chosen a specific region of Mars, Elysium Planitia, to land its next Mars science probe.

The landing-site selection process evaluated four candidate locations selected in 2014. The quartet is within the flat-lying “Elysium Planitia,” less than five degrees north of the equator, and all four appear safe for InSight’s landing. The single site will continue to be analyzed in coming months for final selection later this year. If unexpected problems with this site are found, one of the others would be imaged and could be selected. The favored site is centered at about four degrees north latitude and 136 degrees east longitude.

InSight launches next year.

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NASA has announced its next planetary mission, a lander to Mars that will drill down thirty feet into the planet’s surface

NASA has announced its next planetary mission, a lander to Mars that will drill down thirty feet into the planet’s surface.

Though exciting in its own right, this mission is far less ambitious than the two missions which competed against it, a boat that would have floated on the lakes of Titan and a probe that would have bounced repeatedly off the surface of a comet. I suspect the reason this mission was chosen is the tight budgets at NASA, combined with Curiosity’s success which makes it politically advantageous to approve another Mars mission. As the NASA press release emphasized,
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