To Mars, With Love. -California

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In addition to just preparing to become an astronaut, I also like to keep informed on what NASA and the space industry is currently doing. Today I attended the first interplanetary launch from the west coast of the United States when the Mars InSight lander launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base.

My Experience

May 4th, 2200

The launch window opened on May 5th at 4:05am PT which meant a late night drive. I currently live in northern California, so I gathered some friends who had never experienced a launch and we started our 4 hour drive south. It was a pretty straight forward drive down there where we talked about all sorts of space related topics including my ambitious for Mars. While I was able to explain the objective of the Mars InSight mission, it was easier to play this podcast from NASA to give my friends an overview.

May 5th, 0200

We arrived at the Lompoc Airport, which was one of the official NASA viewing sites, shortly before they opened the gates. There was a line of cars already waiting to get in but luckily the staff was well organized and it moved quickly. NASA and the Air Force had a tent setup where they had all sorts of memorabilia (patches, coins, stickers, etc.) for the event and different backdrops for photos. This was a great way to spend some time while we waited for the pending launch. Finally we found our seats and made friends with those around us. It was night and we had a general idea of where the launch pad was, but could not see it in the darkness and fog that had settled. We would have to wait until launch to get a glimpse.


May 5th, 0400 - Launch

As we approached the launch window, the bright lights finally went off and people started getting quiet. There wasn't a great setup for the countdown, so we were all looking at our watches and phones as we patiently waited. I heard a faint countdown and then a quiet rumble began. At first I was a little confused because light travels faster than sound and when I attended the Falcon Heavy launch, I saw the rocket in the air a few seconds before I heard the engines. But sure enough, the rumble of the engines became louder and you could begin to feel it in your chest. Still no bright light in the sky though?? Everyone was looking in every direction and we couldn't see any changes in the night sky. As the rumbling decreased and the roaring of the engines silenced, we had to come to the realization that the morning fog was too dense to see the rocket. So a little bit disappointing, but still great to be present for the historic launch! Lucky for all of us, there are professionals capturing the event, and you can see the launch below! It is pretty cool to see it emerge from the sea of clouds!

So while this launch was not as exciting as the Falcon Heavy launch I attended in February (that might be a hard one to top), it was still a great experience and I was excited to share my love of space with friends!

That was my experience, but if you are curious about what was actually launched today, continue reading!

Mars InSight

The Mars Interior Exploration and Seismic Investigations, Geodesy, and Heat Transport (or InSight for short) is a robotic lander used to study the interior of Mars. So what can we tell by looking at the crust, mantle, and core of Mars? Well we understand a lot about the Earth and by investigating the seismic activity on Mars, NASA hopes to better understand more about the formation of rocky planets in our solar system. Using a 7' robotic arm, the InSight will place various tools on the Martian surface to measure heat and seismic activity.

The Seismometer (SEIS)

First, the InSight will place the seismometer on the Martian surface so it can directly measure activity on the planet. This instrument is so sensitive, it is able to detect the impact of a hydrogen atom! Because it is so sensitive, there is a need to protect the instrument. Once the robotics arm places it safely on the surface of Mars, a wind and heat shield will be placed by the robotic arm over the seismometer to protect it. When the system detects seismic activity, how can it tell where it is coming from? Well it actually contains three identical sensors that are orientated orthogonally  to each other to determine the location of activity. This is done with a technique called triangulation.

Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3)

Once the seismometer and its shield are in place, the HP3 will be placed on the surface. Its job is to drill 5 meters into the Martian crust and measure the temperature as the depth changes. The mole is the drilling component of this instrument and uses an interior hammering mechanism to tap itself down millimeters at a time. The tether that is attached to the mole is the actual instrument. It has sensors on the tether to sense heat and determine depth. For detailed information about this instrument, look here.

Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment (RISE)

RISE utilizes a precision X-band radio and the fact that the InSight lander will be in a fixed position on the Martian surface. This means that we can measure its precise location with reference to the Earth. By gathering this information, we will be able to determine how Mars wobbles as it rotates on its axis. This helps answer questions about the state and composition of the Martian core.

Misc. Instruments

The InSight lander has a few additional sensors for data collection. It has environmental sensors measuring pressure, ground and air temperature, wind, and magnetic variations. There are also two cameras on the lander: one medium resolution camera and one fish-eye lens camera.

Wall-E and Eva

The InSight lander will not be travelling alone on its trip to Mars. There are two cubesats on board collectively called Mars Cubesat One (or MarCO). They are independent of the InSight lander, but will transmit data back about the entry, descent, and landing of InSight. This is the first time cubesats have been sent to another planet, so it is an experiment to determine how reliable these small, low costs spacecrafts can be in deep space. They use compressed gas similar to that found in fire extinguishers and have therefore been nicknamed "Wall-E" and "Eva" (watch Wall-E if you don't get the reference).

Look for the InSight lander to touchdown on Mars on November 26th, 2018, Cyber Monday.