Getting Excited for InSight

April 3, 2018

NASA is launching the InSight mission to Mars early in the morning on May 5th, 2018. That’s soon! So we’re ramping up coverage of the spacecraft as the launch nears. Plus, we’ve got an exciting new T-Shirt in our shop to celebrate the start of the mission. But first, what is the InSight mission all about?

Gaining InSights into Mars’ interior

InSight stands for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport. It’s the first spacecraft that will primarily measure what’s happening inside the planet Mars rather than what’s shaping its surface. InSight is part of NASA’s Discovery program, the smallest of the three classes of planetary missions the agency funds.

To accomplish its mission. InSight will use two primary instruments. The first is SEIS (Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure). It’s a super-sensitive seismometre that InSight will place directly on the surface using its robotic arm. When we say “super-sensitive”, we mean it. The instrument will detect earthquakes (or should we call them marsquakes?) all over the planet. In fact, it’s so sensitive that it will detect the gravity of Mars’ moon Phobos tugging on the surface as it orbits around Mars. In a Von Karman lecture at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the principal investigator of the mission Bruce Banerdt said that in testing, SEIS could detect the waves crashing against the California coast. From Colorado. France’s space agency CNES contributed the instrument.

The SEIS instrument on the ground and covered by wind guard.

The SEIS instrument on the ground and covered by wind guard. JPLer’s sweet kicks for scale. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The other major instrument is HP3 (Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package). This fascinating little probe is a self-penetrating spike connected by a long tether. The probe has a spring loaded hammer inside which allows it to slowly burrow downward into the regolith, as deep as five metres. Along its tether are temperature sensors that will allow it to measure the heat escaping from the planet’s core. Like SEIS, InSight’s robotic arm will deploy HP3 directly on the surface. Germany’s space agency DLR contributed the instrument.

The HP3 Instrument, with the structure on the ground (top) and the self-burrowing mole going downward. (DLR)

Other Instruments

InSight has a number of additional instruments to help with its mission as well. You can read more about them on the Wikipedia page. I would also recommend you listen in to our interview with Farah Alibay, a Payload Systems Engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who explained how these instruments were integrated into the spacecraft and what kinds of things they can accomplish.

Farah Alibay, NASA JPL Payload Systems Engineer and the InSight spacecraft.

How will InSight get to Mars?

InSight is launching from Earth onboard a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket in the 401 configuration. That means it has a 4-metre fairing, 0 solid rocket boosters, and 1 Centaur upper stage engine. Here’s a breakout of the spacecraft and the rocket components in an exploded view.

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket in the 401 configuration, with the NASA InSight spacecraft

United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket in the 401 configuration, with the NASA InSight spacecraft

InSight’s launch is scheduled for May 5th, 2018 at 04:05 AM PDT (11:05 UTC). It’s lifting off from Space Launch Complex 3 at Vandenberg Air Force Base on the West coast of the United States, in California. This is the very first launch of a planetary mission from Vandenberg. Normally, these missions fly from Florida to take advantage of the speed boost from launching due East. But InSight is a relatively light spacecraft and the Atlas V is a mighty rocket which can make up for that advantage, and so to avoid congestion at Kennedy Space Centre, it’s heading south from the California coast. If the skies are clear and you get up really early, you might be able to see the rocket from Los Angeles or even as far South as San Diego. If not, you can watch the stream on JPL’s YouTube channel.

Should there be any issues with the launch, the window extends for two hours, giving the opportunity to recycle the countdown and try more than once. Even if the window is exceeded on May 5th, they can try again every day at roughly the same time until as late as June 8th. Once the rocket lifts off, it will go through a nominal sequence to enter an Earth parking orbit before heading off on an interplanetary trajectory. The first stage and the protective aerodynamic fairings will fall in to the ocean, and the second stage (Centaur) will take InSight off in to deep space. It’ll be quite a ride.

The InSight Atlas V launch sequence. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

MarCO A and B

After InSight separates from the Centaur upper stage, two smaller spacecraft called cubesats will deploy from something called the Centaur Aft Bulkhead Carrier (ABC). The ABCs are two small compartments underneath the stage next to the engine. Here’s a diagram to show you where they are stowed.

Atlas V rocket carrying InSight. The Centaur upper stage is circled. At its base, surrounding the engines, are the Aft Bulkhead Carriers, where MarCO A and B are stowed. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

These cubesats, called MarCO A and B, will travel independently to Mars. It’s kind of like formation flying, though the spacecraft will likely separate to large distances en route. Once everyone arrives in November, the MarCO sats will act as relay satellites, sending data from the InSight lander directly back to Earth. MarCO is an experiment to see if cubesats can play an important role in planetary exploration, and it helps takes the load off the lander and the existing orbiters at Mars.

The twin MarCO cubesats, illustrated relaying the data from the InSight lander as it descends to the surface of Mars.

The twin MarCO cubesats, illustrated relaying the data from the InSight lander as it descends to the surface of Mars. (JPL/Caltech)

WeMartians Coverage of InSight

Jake is heading down to California for the launch. We’re still awaiting confirmation of media credentials but he will provide live coverage through Twitter either way. An episode covering the launch event will air the following week in our normal podcast feed.

Travel to events like this is not cheap. It’s made possible thanks to the generous contributions of the WeMartians Patrons over on Patreon. There, they pledge as little as $1/month to gain access to bonus content, our Red Planet Review podcast, advance notice of interviews and the Off-Nominal Discord. It’s a great way to support an independent podcast, and if you pledge now you’ll be ready to access additional content for the InSight launch.

Pledge $1 or more to WeMartians on Patreon to get InSight bonus content

But, if pledging isn’t your thing, though, read on!

Introducing the InSight Launch T-Shirt!

Another way to support WeMartians is by visiting our shop for great Mars apparel. Today we’re launching a special new T-Shirt to celebrate the InSight launch, the first interplanetary launch from California. We tried to capture the feel of the Golden State in this vintage design as well as some real science. The wavelength at the bottom of the logo is the typical result of an earthquake on a seismometre, with the p-wave, s-wave and surface waves visible in a row.

Order now to ensure you get your shirt in time for the launch! And don’t worry, we have different colours and sizes in men’s and women’s cuts.

The InSight Good Vibes premium T-Shirt design from WeMartians.

The InSight Good Vibes premium T-Shirt design from WeMartians. Order now to get it in time for the launch!


Obviously, we’re very excited for the InSight launch. Mars missions only come around every twenty-six months. So let us know if you’re going to come down for the launch as well or what your thoughts are. Remember, you can tweet or email us. Go Atlas, go Centaur, go InSight!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

WeMartians Podcast © 2017