Mike Hockett Headshot Editorial

January Editorial: Testing for Mars

Dec. 27, 2018
At 1:57 p.m. CT on Nov. 26, NASA’s InSight Rover touched down on the dusty red planet, ending a seven-month journey that took the craft on a 301,223,981-mile journey since it launched from the central coast of California.

I watched NASA’s YouTube livestream from the control room, where dozens of project members anxiously tracked their $830 million rover’s descent, landing and confirmation of working communications, celebrating a series of milestones along the way.

InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) landed at Elysium Planitia—considered a flat and open region coined “the biggest parking lot on Mars” by astronomers. And while the landing went perfectly, it was only the first major milestone that will determine if InSight is successful.

Just a few minutes after touchdown, InSight sent its first image from the Martian surface. About six hours later, NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter confirmed that InSight’s solar arrays deployed correctly. This began a three-month deployment phase of InSight’s instruments as part of its two-year prime mission of burrowing a heat probe and performing a series of radio experiments to study the internal structure and rotation of Mars. The engineering team began deploying InSight’s 5.9-foot-long robotic camera arm a couple days after landing, and the rover started collecting science data about the same time.

InSight’s main instruments—the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure and Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package—were set to deploy after this issue went to print. Only then will we know if the rover is truly successful. Given how smoothly the landing went, there’s no reason to think it won’t be.

I try and watch the livestream of many notable NASA launches and landings, as well as space launches from private enterprise like SpaceX and Blue Origin. I’m a proud space and cosmic phenomena nerd. My wife and I even made the 450-mile drive from Madison, WI to a campground near the southern Illinois border to watch the 2017 total solar eclipse at totality in August 2017. Three months later, we took the full tour at Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX.

Watching NASA’s livestream of the InSight landing and aftermath, I kept thinking about just how much testing it must take to develop a Mars rover and then pull off the feat of successfully landing it 300 million miles from Earth. Testing the rover’s basic motor functions is one thing, its instruments are another, and then the launch itself is a whole different challenge. All have zero room for error with almost a billion-dollar investment on the line. And I wonder how the nature of space—and more specifically, Mars—based electronic test & measurement procedures compare with that found in other industries. I’m guessing much of it is the same, but surely, testing components that need to function off of Earth requires some different criteria than components that need to function lab rack here on Earth.

I wonder how far in advance that testing begins before a rover project, or any project that puts something into space. InSight was manufactured by Lockheed Martin and is managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and most of Insight’s onboard payload instruments were built by European agencies. The testing process must take an extraordinary cooperative effort between all parties involved.

Hopefully someday for Evaluation Engineering I’ll have the opportunity to ask a Lockheed Martin, JPL, or NASA project test engineer about that testing timeline and what’s involved. Where did Lockheed Martin get InSight’s semiconductors and sensors from? What kind of environmental testing was required, and who performed that testing? These are other questions I’d like to dive into.

What a ginormous financial and labor waste it would be to send this craft like this to Mars and land it perfectly, only to find out a key instrument or component of its drill doesn’t function correctly due to something missed in the testing stage. It was only a few minutes before Monday’s landing that I learned that InSight was originally supposed to launch back in March of 2016, but a persistent vacuum failure in its seismometer caused it to miss its launch window and delay it until May of 2018. That setback added approximately $150 million to the total project cost.

Insight follows three consecutive successful Mars rover missions—Spirit (landed January 2004); Opportunity (landed January 2004); and Curiosity (landed August 2012). Before that, three of the first four rover missions were failures—Mars 2 (1971), Mars 3 (1971), and Beagle 2 (2003)— with 1997’s Sojourner (Mars Pathfinder) as the first successful mission.

Congrats to Lockheed Martin, the JPL InSight team, and everyone else involved on what has been achieved so far, and best of luck on the rest of this mission.

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