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| Thursday, Nov 29, 2018
NASA's InSight Mars Lander in fully landed configuration in the clean room at Lockheed Martin Space in Littleton, Colorado. Once the solar arrays are fully deployed on Mars, they can provide 600-700 watts on a clear day, or just enough to power a household blender. Credits: Lockheed Martin.
NASA's InSight Mars Lander in fully landed configuration in the clean room at Lockheed Martin Space in Littleton, Colorado. Once the solar arrays are fully deployed on Mars, they can provide 600-700 watts on a clear day, or just enough to power a household blender.
Credits: Lockheed Martin.

 

Mars has just received its newest robotic resident, with a little help from two Canyon Country residents, Scott Evans and Gene Bonfiglio, among the key Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineers guiding NASA’s InSight lander safely to the Red Planet’s surface on Monday.

NASA’s Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations Geodesy and Heat Transport, or InSight lander successfully touched down on Mars after an almost seven-month, 300-million-mile (458-million-kilometer) journey from Earth.

Evans, who holds physics and astronomy degrees from Stanford and UCLA, respectively, and has been a JPL engineer for 17 years, led the software team for the navigation system that was used to guide InSight from launch through deep space to Mars’ atmosphere.

That’s when Bonfiglio, who earned aerospace undergrad and master’s degrees from Purdue and has worked at JPL nearly 20 years, and his Entry, Descent and Landing or EDL team took over in the Master Control Room, controlling InSight’s final descent through Mars’ atmosphere to its perfect touchdown.

Now, InSight’s two-year mission will be to study the deep interior of Mars to learn how all celestial bodies with rocky surfaces, including Earth and the Moon, formed.

Evans and his wife Pnina and their 12-year-old daughter have lived in Canyon Country for 15 years. Bonfigilio and his wife Kimberly, who have four children ranging in age from 10 to 14, are close neighbors of the Evans family, just across Highway 14.

Evans and Bonfiglio spoke with SCVNews.com at length about their roles in the landing. Their comments follow Monday’s recap from NASA.

NASA InSighting Landing Recap
InSight launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California May 5. The lander touched down Monday, Nov. 26, near Mars’ equator on the western side of a flat, smooth expanse of lava called Elysium Planitia, with a signal affirming a completed landing sequence at 11:52 a.m. PST (2:52 p.m. EST).

“Today, we successfully landed on Mars for the eighth time in human history,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said Monday afternoon. “InSight will study the interior of Mars, and will teach us valuable science as we prepare to send astronauts to the Moon and later to Mars. This accomplishment represents the ingenuity of America and our international partners and it serves as a testament to the dedication and perseverance of our team. The best of NASA is yet to come, and it is coming soon.”

The landing signal was relayed to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, via NASA’s two small experimental Mars Cube One (MarCO) CubeSats, which launched on the same rocket as InSight and followed the lander to Mars. They are the first CubeSats sent into deep space.

After successfully carrying out a number of communications and in-flight navigation experiments, the twin MarCOs were set in position to receive transmissions during InSight’s entry, descent and landing.

From Fast to Slow
“We hit the Martian atmosphere at 12,300 mph (19,800 kilometers per hour), and the whole sequence to touching down on the surface took only six-and-a-half minutes,” said InSight project manager Tom Hoffman at JPL. “During that short span of time, InSight had to autonomously perform dozens of operations and do them flawlessly — and by all indications that is exactly what our spacecraft did.”

NASA's InSight Mars lander acquired this image of the area in front of the lander using its lander-mounted, Instrument Context Camera (ICC). This image was acquired on Nov. 26, 2018, Sol 0 of the InSight mission where the local mean solar time for the image exposures was 13:34:21. Each ICC image has a field of view of 124 x 124 degrees. Credits: NASA/JPL-CalTech

NASA’s InSight Mars lander acquired this image of the area in front of the lander using its lander-mounted, Instrument Context Camera (ICC). This image was acquired on Nov. 26, 2018, Sol 0 of the InSight mission where the local mean solar time for the image exposures was 13:34:21. Each ICC image has a field of view of 124 x 124 degrees.
Credits: NASA/JPL-CalTech

Confirmation of a successful touchdown is not the end of the challenges of landing on the Red Planet. InSight’s surface-operations phase began a minute after touchdown. One of its first tasks is to deploy its two decagonal solar arrays, which will provide power. That process begins 16 minutes after landing and takes another 16 minutes to complete.

The InSight team expected a confirmation later Monday that the spacecraft’s solar panels successfully deployed. Verification will come from NASA’s Odyssey spacecraft, currently orbiting Mars. That signal is expected to reach InSight’s mission control at JPL about five-and-a-half hours after landing.

“We are solar powered, so getting the arrays out and operating is a big deal,” Hoffman said. “With the arrays providing the energy we need to start the cool science operations, we are well on our way to thoroughly investigate what’s inside of Mars for the very first time.”

InSight will begin to collect science data within the first week after landing, though the teams will focus mainly on preparing to set InSight’s instruments on the Martian ground. At least two days after touchdown, the engineering team will begin to deploy InSight’s 5.9-foot-long (1.8-meter-long) robotic arm so that it can take images of the landscape.

“Landing was thrilling, but I’m looking forward to the drilling,” said InSight principal investigator Bruce Banerdt of JPL.

“When the first images come down, our engineering and science teams will hit the ground running, beginning to plan where to deploy our science instruments,” Banerdt said. “Within two or three months, the arm will deploy the mission’s main science instruments, the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) and Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) instruments.”

NASA's InSight Mars lander acquired this image of the area in front of the lander using its lander-mounted, Instrument Context Camera (ICC). This image was acquired on Nov. 26, 2018, Sol 0 of the InSight mission where the local mean solar time for the image exposures was 13:34:21. Each ICC image has a field of view of 124 x 124 degrees. Credits: NASA/JPL-CalTech

NASA’s InSight Mars lander acquired this image of the area in front of the lander using its lander-mounted, Instrument Context Camera (ICC). This image was acquired on Nov. 26, 2018, Sol 0 of the InSight mission where the local mean solar time for the image exposures was 13:34:21. Each ICC image has a field of view of 124 x 124 degrees.
Credits: NASA/JPL-CalTech

InSight will operate on the surface for one Martian year, plus 40 Martian days, or sols, until Nov. 24, 2020. The mission objectives of the two small MarCOs which relayed InSight’s telemetry was completed after their Martian flyby.

“That’s one giant leap for our intrepid, briefcase-sized robotic explorers,” said Joel Krajewski, MarCO project manager at JPL. “I think CubeSats have a big future beyond Earth’s orbit, and the MarCO team is happy to trailblaze the way.”

With InSight’s landing at Elysium Planitia, NASA has successfully soft-landed a vehicle on the Red Planet eight times.

“Every Mars landing is daunting, but now with InSight safely on the surface we get to do a unique kind of science on Mars,” said JPL director Michael Watkins. “The experimental MarCO CubeSats have also opened a new door to smaller planetary spacecraft. The success of these two unique missions is a tribute to the hundreds of talented engineers and scientists who put their genius and labor into making this a great day.”

JPL manages InSight for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. InSight is part of NASA’s Discovery Program, managed by the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The MarCO CubeSats were built and managed by JPL. Lockheed Martin Space in Denver built the InSight spacecraft, including its cruise stage and lander, and supports spacecraft operations for the mission.

A number of European partners, including France’s Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES) and the German Aerospace Center (DLR), are supporting the InSight mission. CNES, and the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris (IPGP), provided the SEIS instrument, with significant contributions from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Germany, the Swiss Institute of Technology (ETH) in Switzerland, Imperial College and Oxford University in the United Kingdom, and JPL. DLR provided the HP3 instrument, with significant contributions from the Space Research Center (CBK) of the Polish Academy of Sciences and Astronika in Poland. Spain’s Centro de Astrobiología (CAB) supplied the wind sensors.

* * * * *

Scott Evans of NASA JPL's Navigation Team that guided the InSight spacecraft to Mars for its touchdown on Nov. 26, 2018.

Scott Evans of NASA JPL’s Navigation Team that guided the InSight spacecraft to Mars for its touchdown on Nov. 26, 2018.

Interview with Scott Evans
I’m a software manager. And I manage the software project called MDONTE, the Mission Design Operations Navigation Toolkit Environment. Like everything at NASA, MDONTE is an acronym. It’s a software system used to navigate spacecraft, including the recent InSight mission.

The control room was mostly the EDL folks, the entry, decent and landing. The only navigator there in the control room was the chief, Allen Halsell. The rest of the nav team were watching from another room, because the navigation job is finished at the beginning of the seven minutes of terror.

The nav job starts an hour or so after launch when we escape earth’s orbit. And then for the six and a half months of flying in deep space, it’s the job of the JPL navigators to get the spacecraft to the entry point, at which point it’s handed over to the EDL folks, which get it from the top of the atmosphere down to the bottom. That’s Gene’s job.

The best that navigation can do is deliver right into the atmosphere corridor that the EDL people had requested. So, what was really interesting for us is the incoming flight path angle, the angle the spacecraft hits the upper atmosphere.

If you hit the atmosphere at too shallow an angle, it’s like skipping a stone off of water. You’ll bounce off the atmosphere and fly off into deep space, and there’s no chance to come back because you’re moving too fast. And if you come in at too steep an angle, you’ll just burn up.

And so we have to be at a certain flight path angle with a lot of precision to get that heatshield oriented so that it’s not taking too much hit, but it’s not too shallow either so you can actually get it to the ground. That was the big concern for the navigation team.

Two Sundays before landing, and then the day before were our last two maneuvers, which cleaned up that flight path angle. We handed it off pretty confident that we were good to go.

The precision on the ground is something like one part in 10 million. The director of (JPL), a guy named Dr. Mike Watkins, used to be our boss in the navigation section. He’s since ascended to higher things. He said, “Our goal is to land in a teacup on Mars.” So the combination of precision navigation and then precision EDL, which is what Gene’s team does, working together, is our goal.

* * * * *

Interview with Gene Bonfiglio
I’m an entry, decent and landing systems engineer, and have been with JPL for 19 years and worked on a couple of EDL missions. I was very involved in the Phoenix Lander, which is kind of the twin sister of InSight. I was not in the Mission Control room though when we touched down with Phoenix, which is why this time made it feel so much more special.

I also did some work on Mars Curiosity, testing for the entry, decent and landing team, but was not a main component of EDL team for Curiosity or Phoenix. For InSight, I was. So I have spent the last 14 years or so working on missions to Mars.

Gene Bonfiglio speaks with SCVTV's Leon Worden about the Phoenix Mission, as Behzad Raofi looks on.

Gene Bonfiglio speaks with SCVTV’s Leon Worden about the Phoenix Mission, as Behzad Raofi looks on.

I started working on the InSight project about five to six years ago and had a couple of roles. I worked with the navigation team a little bit in helping them target the right spot in the atmosphere so that we would land on the right spot on the ground.

Then most of my time was spent running the radar model. We have a simulation of the spacecraft, and it simulates the trajectory from just before entry until we touch down. And it tries to simulate all of the sensors and instruments that we have onboard to help us figure out where we are with respect to the ground. We have models of all of those things, like the IMU (inertial measurement unit), which shows us how fast we’re turning, what direction we’re pointing, and how much we’re slowing down.

Radar tells how high we are with respect to the ground and how we’re moving relative to the ground. Running that model (helped us) to understand how the model interacts with the ground and other things in the air.

Like when we kick off the heat shield, making sure that the radar is going to actually sense the ground or under what circumstances it might accidentally sense the heat shield. There are different ways the radar can spoof the flight software and give it wrong information. Then toward the end of the project, I spent a lot of time helping to prepare the team for EDL operations.

The EDL team included around eight people from Lockheed Martin, nine or 10 people from JPL and four people from NASA’s Langley Research Center.

In the last hour (before landing), my coworker, Brooke Harper, and I were at the console together, watching the telemetry come in.

Remember, it takes more than eight minutes for the signal to get to Earth. It’s really a lot of just watching and waiting because there’s nothing we can do. We can’t send commands to the spacecraft anymore. It’s too late to fix anything if something goes wrong or something was missed. So, we’re checking off the boxes as the telemetry comes in, telling us the spacecraft is doing what it’s supposed to do.

Gene Bonfiglio and Brooke Harper of NASA JPL's Entry, Descent and Lansing Team after the InSight spacecraft's successful touchdown on Mars on Nov. 26, 2018.

Gene Bonfiglio and Brooke Harper of NASA JPL’s Entry, Descent and Lansing Team prepare for the InSight spacecraft’s touchdown on Mars on Nov. 26, 2018.

We were very anxious and nervous, just trying to keep it lighthearted, making jokes, and keeping each other smiling and laughing. Otherwise, the hour waiting to touch down would have been just horrific.

But once we got real close to the atmosphere, about entry minus 20 minutes, that’s when we started to see a lot of the very important and significant events.

At entry minus 20 minutes, the onboarding state gets initialized, which means we tell the spacecraft the best guess as to what its entry velocity and entry position is.

Then, at entry minus 10 minutes, it reads that position and velocity and uses the IMU, the inertial measurement unit, that’s onboard that can sense the acceleration from the thrusters and the drag from the atmosphere. It could also sense when the attitude or the (angle) changes.

From that point on, as the IMU senses the atmosphere slowing us down, it’s taking that information and updating our position and velocity along with the gravity effects to give the spacecraft its best guess as to where we are.

That’s important because we needed to know which way down was so when we turned on our thrusters at the very end, we pointed them in the right direction. We also needed to know how far we were from the center of Mars because we needed to also be accounting for the acceleration of gravity as we’re going through the atmosphere.

At entry, just about six to seven minutes before touching on the ground, we really start to sense the atmosphere and feel some deceleration. From that point we go through our peak deceleration.

We’re watching the projected information as it’s coming in: “Okay, are we seeing the peak deceleration that we expected, which was between seven and eight G’s?” And then as we see the velocity slow down, we know we’re getting to the point where we’ll trigger the parachute.

At the time we deploy the parachute, the speed of the spacecraft is typically, I think, around 400 meters per second. And we slow down very quickly to about 100 to 80 meters per second. Just before we separated from the parachute, we were at about 65 or so meters per second. But we decelerate very, very quickly from Mach 1.8, which is 1.8 times the speed of sound, to well under the speed of sound at something like Mach .65. All that happens in just a handful of seconds.

That was a big event. Once we saw the velocity and the deceleration get to the level where the parachute could be triggered, we immediately we changed our mode to be in parachute mode.

Once in parachute (mode), the big event was the radar, because if your radar doesn’t work, you have no chance of success. You need the trigger to figure out how high off the ground you are, because the inertial measurement unit is not accurate enough to give you a good measurement of your altitude. So about 35 seconds after the parachute deployed, the radar started looking for the ground. And at that point, we were probably seven or eight kilometers off of the ground.

The radar can’t sense the ground until we get to within 2,500 meters of the ground. And once we get to that altitude, then it will be able to sense the ground. In fact, at the time that the radar senses the ground, the spacecraft might think that it is at 1,000 meters from the ground, but we’re not.

The spacecraft has the bad knowledge of altitude until the radar gets the accurate measurements.

And once we can rely on the altitude the spacecraft is saying it has, we have what we call altitude convergence, which means that the radar has locked on the ground, and the spacecraft thought it was good data, and confident (the radar) wasn’t locked on the heat shield.

As soon as I saw that altitude convergence, I felt a great feeling of relief, because I knew that we had good data telling the spacecraft where the ground was and that as long as the thrusters worked, we would be in good shape.

Once we had the good data, we were at about 1,200 meters when we separated from the parachute and we fired the thrusters. And so there, it was just listening to Christine Szalai, the voice of EDL, call out the altitude measurements as we got lower, and lower, and lower, and as our velocity reduced because we were firing the thrusters.

Gene Bonfiglio and Brooke Harper of NASA JPL's Entry, Descent and Lansing Team after the InSight spacecraft's successful touchdown on Mars on Nov. 26, 2018.

Gene Bonfiglio and Brooke Harper of NASA JPL’s Entry, Descent and Lansing Team after the InSight spacecraft’s successful touchdown on Mars on Nov. 26, 2018.

Once Brooke and I saw the message that InSight was on the ground, we waited until we heard Christine call out, “Touch down confirmed!” and that’s when we were allowed to jump in the air and do our little touchdown celebration.

Brooke and I are both big football fans. She is a Chiefs fan and I’m a Patriots fan. Since TD celebrations are popular again in football, we thought it would be appropriate since we were attempting to touch down on Mars. My wife saw a touchdown celebration in September by Marquis Goodwin and Kendrick Bourne and said that was the celebration Brooke and I should do. So we broke down the film, modified it a little, and practiced it a few times a week.

Yes, Scott Evans and I are friends. We have lunch together usually once a week. Scott is a smart guy. He knows a lot of things about physics and astronomy, things that I don’t know.

Gene Bonfiglio and Christine Szalai of NASA JPL's Entry, Descent and Lansing Team after the InSight spacecraft's successful touchdown on Mars on Nov. 26, 2018.

Gene Bonfiglio and Christine Szalai of NASA JPL’s Entry, Descent and Lansing Team after the InSight spacecraft’s successful touchdown on Mars on Nov. 26, 2018.

The Research Begins: What Happens Next?
Scott Evans: (The Navigation Team is) has no more navigation to do because the cruise vehicle burned up the way it was supposed to in the atmosphere. So now there’s a whole different set of people involved in the research.

One aspect of the research will be helpful for navigation of future Mars missions, I think.

The radio experiment onboard will allow us to get a very accurate description of how Mars is oriented. Now that we have a fixed lander on Mars, it’s like having a differential GPS pole in the ground. Now we can watch Mars spin and wobble around (on its axis), and measure rotation and procession, which scientists are very interested in because that can tell us how Mars’ seasons, its climate, has varied with time.

In the case of the Earth, we have a very stable spin axis, which makes our seasons very slow-changing. The angle of the Earth’s poles is 23.5 degrees. And it’s been like that for eons, only slowly changing. And so we have mild seasons.

We don’t think that’s the case with Mars. (Mild seasons) may be important for the development of life. So, climate change there may be too rapid for life to have developed. But we want to measure that. Also in terms of navigation, knowing where the Mars pole is and how Mars is oriented allows for more accurate targeting in the future.

Gene Bonfiglio: My role in the project now? Bask in the glory of having touched down on Mars (much laughter). Actually, we have money from NASA to do what they call reconstructive trajectory to figure how it flew versus how we predicted it would fly. And then understand what the thruster interaction was with the ground when we touched down, things like that. So I will get some work doing that for the next five to six months.

That’ll probably be half my time. And I honestly don’t know what the other half of my time will be. There’s always kind of an awkward transition when you’re kind of a prime member of a flight team, because you’re focused on making this thing successful and not on, “What am I going to do after this thing touches down…?” We’ll see. Something will come up, though.

When not with family or at work, Scott Evans loves to ride.

When not with family or at work, Scott Evans loves to ride. Photo from Facebook.

In the Year 2020…
Scott Evans: So (the Navigation Team has) now turned our attention to the Mars 2020 mission, which launches in July of 2020.

And then also the Europa Project. We want to send a probe to Jupiter’s moon, Europa, which we think is a good bet to maybe have life underneath a frozen subsurface ocean. We’re not going to launch any earlier than 2023, and then it would depend on how much money Congress gives us. It’s a two and a half to seven and a half year flight, depending on how good of a rocket we get.

We have to do tricks like fly down to Venus and steal energy if we get a crummier rocket. It’s cheaper that way, but it takes longer.

This is the type of problem the NASA software system is designed to analyze and solve.

It turns out that we’ve got almost a million lines of code, which is far less than the amount of code in a single F-35 fighter these days. We can land on Mars with less information than flying a Raptor.

It’s very, very lean. And that includes a lot of analysis and plotting, and all kinds of goodies — one-stop shopping. The project has been around for 20 years. And the first mission we flew with this particular system is the Phoenix mission, which Gene was also involved with, which landed in 2008. So, now we have a decade of missions under our belt.

The software is considered so reliable now that they don’t need of us in Operations anymore. So, yeah, I didn’t get to sit in the (Control Room) room with cool people. It’s like, “Eh, software works. Okay.”

Scott Evans at JPL in Pasadena (actually La Canada) talks about the Voyager missions in front of a life-size model of the Voyager spacecraft including the famous “gold record” sent as a message from Earth to whomever might one day come across the ship.

“Send more Chuck Berry!”: Scott Evans at JPL in Pasadena (actually La Canada) talks about the Voyager missions in front of a life-size model of the Voyager spacecraft displaying the famous “gold record” sent as a message from Earth to whoever might one day come across the ship.

* * * * *

Be sure to see Scott Evans and Gene Bonfiglio guest on SCVTV’s “SCV Today” show on Wednesday morning, Dec. 5.

For more information about InSight, visit https://www.nasa.gov/insight/.

For more information about MarCO, visit
https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/cubesat/missions/marco.php.

For more information about NASA’s Mars missions, go to https://www.nasa.gov/mars.

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