Download the Mach newsletter. SUBSCRIBE Nov. 24, 2018 / 11:01 AM GMT By Denise Chow When his curiosity robbed landed…
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By Denise Chow
When his curiosity robbed landed on March 2012, NASA called the last, most dangerous phase of the robbery’s descent “Seven Minutes of Terror”.
Now the space organization’s Mars InSight lander is a day away from its own somewhat more compact touchdown on the red planet. This time, NASA says that the final phase of spacecraft landing takes about six and a half minutes ̵
1; and the members of the InSight team are trying to contain their increasing anxiety.
“It’s a little less terror”, jokes Rob Grover, who heads the team in charge of InSights landing at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
InSight, designed to study the deep interior of the Red Planet, is scheduled to throw down on the Mars surface on Monday at 15 EST after traveling more than 300 million miles since its inception in May from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
Grover is a veteran of three other Mars landings; He was part of the law that put the twin spirit and opportunity rover down on the Mars surface for three weeks in January 2004, and again when the Phoenix Mars Lander moved down in 2008.
Recently, NBC News spoke MACH with Grover about what who bothered him most about landing, how InSight’s mission compares to previous trips on Mars and how he and his colleagues keep cool in Mission Control.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
MACH: How do you feel now that the landing day is just around the corner?
Grover: The team feels pretty good. We have done almost everything we can to make sure we succeed. Of course, it is nerves and excitement, and when we get closer it starts to amplify. But we’re fine about it.
What’s the landing process?
All our Mars landers have so far used a similar landing architecture that dates back to the Viking missions that landed in the 1970s. There are some differences in the design of the landlord himself, but everyone is entering the Mars atmosphere with an aeroshell. And the aeroshells we’ve used are very similar in design – they’re just bigger or smaller.
InSight aeroshell is identical to Phoenix aerosol, except that it has a slightly thicker heat shield on it. It’s as big and much like Spirit and Opportunity Aeroshells as well as Pathfinder, so we know very well how these capsules fly through the Mars atmosphere.
So we enter the Mars atmosphere and about 99 percent of our speed is burned or reduced as we fly through the atmosphere of the aerosol. All our assignments then go to parachute, usually about 7 or 8 miles above the surface. And we use the parachute to make much of the rest of the vehicle’s braking. For InSight, we travel from 12,300 miles per hour to the top of the atmosphere to 5 miles per hour at the touchdown, so the system is designed to take everything so fast out of the system. The landlords who use rocket power for the rest of the descent usually differ from the parachute of almost one mile, or a little less, and then make the rest of the landing under rocket power. InSight has three landing legs, then we’re down as a traditional lander with landing legs.
How do you make InSight land upright?
As it falls under rocket power, there are 12 engines that are grouped into groups of four around the bottom of the lander. The rocket engines gently balance the earth meter when it falls, so they iron up and dirt a little to make sure the lander is horizontal and balanced. And then when we move down, the landing legs have a breaker on the top, and when the leg touches the surface, it releases the switch and it automatically shuts off the motors immediately. It only takes a leg that touches the surface to turn off the engines. And we do so that the engines do not continue to fire after we have struck down, because it can cause problems and may cause the farmer to turn over, which would be bad.
How soon will you know If InSight landed successfully?
As Mars is so far away at landing time, it will take more than 8 minutes for data and signals sent by the landlord to land to land. The entire landing, from the top of the atmosphere to touchdown takes about six and a half minutes, so when we get signals, the farmer is already on the surface. But we will look at when the information comes in as if it happens just then and there.
How do you and your colleagues keep calm in Mission Control?
We have a tradition of JPL to pass around a jar of happy peanuts dating back to the 1960s. It is one of our traditions, and it keeps the things bright. Of course, the hearts will be subdued when we get to the top of the atmosphere and the landing begins, but that’s just part of the job.
What will your schedule be like in the landing list?
Our daily activities are very similar until the evening before. Our main task now is to take the latest weather forecasts for landing – we have a team of atmospheric scientists who use spacecraft to observe the atmosphere and give predictions about how the atmosphere will be like Monday when we land. We take that information along with the latest information from our navigators about what they think the track looks like on arrival to Mars, and we assess and make some small adjustments to the software parameters on board the spacecraft that will be landowners during landing. We do it every day in a repeated cycle when we get an atmosphere update and a track update.
We are able to modify the software parameters on board the spacecraft all the way up to one and a half and a half before landing, so we’ll look at it and decide if we want to make any final adjustments to how the landing will evolve. This weekend we will do it around the clock so we will be on a daytime operation from Saturday morning by landing.
When the landing sequence begins, it’s almost just a matter of hoping for the best?
It’s exactly right. Due to the 8-minute runtime for the signal out to Mars and then back again – it would be 16 minutes overall trip – there is no way to control the spacecraft and fly it from the distance from Earth. The entire landing must be automated and controlled by the computer on board the landing so that is one of the challenges. Once we have set the last parameters and the sequence is running, we look in some way just like everyone else, because there is nothing we can do when landing begins.
What worries you most about InSight landing?
I’m going to make sure everything goes smoothly with the business plan and that we do everything we need and will have everything done in time for the latest parameter update. We have repeated it three times in the last nine months, and we have repeated the hour for the last five days before we landed, so we have really done this week three times earlier. We are in good shape, and the team is well-behaved and seems good.
It is challenging to land on Mars. There is always the chance that we can have a bad day or Mars’s environment may be a little different than we planned and designed for several years.
What is the most risky part of the landing?
There are a couple of times in the control room where we will be especially happy when the landing is being played. One of them is parachute deployment. The parachute is not in itself extra risky. But rather than being a stiff design like metal landers, which is highly predictable, it is made of nylon. That’s what we call a soft good. And when we use it, it is a little less predictable. While we have had great success in using parachutes on Mars, and we expect again, it’s one of those moments when we’ll be lucky when it’s out and we know we fall under the parachute.
I think another one we need to get the radar to work properly to land. We have radar antennas under the farmer. While the farmer is navigating from the top of the atmosphere, it is not enough to know exactly where the ground is so we need the radar to give us new information about how high we are over the ground and what speed we are falling on. Without radar, we do not have enough information to land successfully. Once the radar has successfully acquired the ground, it will be another moment where we will alleviate the spirit of relief.
Were the valuable lessons taught by permeable Mars missions?
After each of our missions we send to Mars, we always do what we call EDL reconstruction, where we take all landing data and basically put together the exact track of the country, how it worked and how the flight program was performed . We feed it to the next mission, so we gather better and better information on how to succeed on Mars.
This particular landlord is almost a carbon copy of the Phoenix landing system. The design is related to Mars Polar Lander, as if you know your Mars landing history, did not succeed in the late 90’s. We did not have real-time communication during that landing, so we do not know exactly what happened to Mars Polar Lander, but it led to a very detailed review of the design and there were some potential error mechanisms discovered. It really helped in designing Phoenix Lander, which really fed into our landlords as well. This is an example of how we used information taken from the previous assignments to make the next assignment more robust.
InSights landing site poses some specific challenges?
The landing site can be one of the safest on Mars. It is one of the flatest places on Mars and has very low mountain levels. There are two things, from a landing security point of view, that we are looking for. On both these numbers, this is a very safe place. Our project manager likes to say that we land on Kansas of Mars.
When InSight is on the surface and you’ve had a chance to take the breath, what do you look forward to with this mission?
Making a Mars mission is just kind of magic. Once we have the science instrument out and start to understand more about Mars, it will be really cool to find things about the unknown. It’s a big part of contributing to an assignment like this. The landing team, believe it or not, is made about a week after landing. We will not continue with any surface operations.
Will you be involved in NASA’s 2020 Mars Rover?
I’m not sure yet where I’m going to transition after InSight is ready so we’ll see what the future holds.
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