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Mars InSight Spacecraft Carries Components Crafted by Orbital ATK-Goleta

Solar arrays for mission to Red Planet built at facility south of Vandenberg AFB launch site

Solar arrays designed and manufactured by Orbital ATK-Goleta Click to view larger
The solar arrays designed and manufactured by Orbital ATK-Goleta sit on the Mars InSight spacecraft, which was built by Lockheed Martin Space. (Lockheed Martin Space photo)

The nation’s next Mars mission will begin its long journey to the Red Planet with a launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, but carries a key component crafted a relatively short roadtrip away. 

NASA's InSight — it stands for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport —sports a solar array designed and built by Orbital ATK-Goleta.

Liftoff for the Atlas V rocket is planned between 4:05 and 6:05 a.m. Saturday from Space Launch Complex-3 on South Base. Weather and technical troubles can delay liftoffs.

Although it’s not the first Mars mission to carry the company’s solar array, the fact that this one will blast off from their backyard, of sorts, makes it extra special.

“I just think it’s really exciting because everyone’s aware of it,” said Jim Spink, program manager. "It’s historic. It’s an interplanetary mission from our own backyard."

The Mars-bound spacecraft is the latest in a string of government and commercial missions to carry components designed and manufactured in the unassuming office building in Old Town Goleta approximately 60 miles south of the launch site.

“It’s a unique opportunity, that’s certainly true,” said Todd Gregory, technical director and a 22-year employee of the company. “There’s been several missions that we’ve flown but I’ve not been present for any of the launches. This will be unique in that respect.

“Any mission to Mars is a career achievement,” he added.

Orbital ATK has arranged for a bus to carry approximately 100 employees and guests to watch the United Launch Alliance rocket departure, and on Wednesday hosted a special presentation about the Lockheed Martin-built spacecraft.

An unfolded solar array, built by Orbital ATK Click to view larger
An unfolded solar array, built by Orbital ATK, is shown for the Mars InSight spacecraftt at the Lockheed Martin Space facility in Colorado prior to the shipment to Vandenberg Air Force Base for launch.  (Lockheed Martin Space photo)

“I want to emphasize the stuff we do here is really cool,” Spink told Orbital ATK employees gathered for an all-hands meeting.

Both Spink and Gregory shared vivid childhood memories seeing the first Mars images from NASA's Viking mission.

Spink, then a paper boy in Santa Barbara, recalled rolling newspapers for delivery and being captivated by the color photo from Mars.

Gregory remembered his mother sitting him down to show the National Geographic cover with Viking images from Mars.

"It was pretty profound," he said. 

The solar array on InSight employs what the firm calls its UltraFlex design, featuring a circular shape and fan-like deployment. 

“It’s compact — compact and lightweight,” Gregory said. 

Those are key features for spacecraft designers since larger and heavier components can add to launch costs.

A solar array, tucked away for launch and unfurled once needed, provides the source to keep spacecraft's batteries powered.

“We have to be strong to withstand the Martian winds, so there’s some unique environments on the surface of Mars that other spacecraft don’t have to deal with,” Spink said. 

Orbital ATK-Goleta has more than two dozen programs in the works, but the Mars mission stands out.

“It’s rare to get a lander mission. That’s what makes this one unique,” Spink said.

After the Atlas rocket lifts off from Vandenberg, the team must wait for the craft to travel millions of miles to Mars for the landing on the planet — deemed the toughed part of the mission — expected Nov. 26.

In addition to InSight, Goleta-made solar arrays also fly on Cygnus spacecraft used to carry supplies to the International Space Station. A lighter solar array means Cygnus can carry more materials per mission, Orbital ATK noted.

This isn’t the Goleta site’s first Mars mission, as similar solar arrays flew on the Mars Phoenix mission. Nor is it their last Mars mission.

The firm also will fly on the Emirates Mars mission, set to launch in 2020 for the United Arab Emirates.

The Goleta-made solar arrays also will fly on NASA’s Lucy spacecraft, which will capture pictures of asteroids near Jupiter. 

Orbital ATK  began in the 1970s as AEC-Able Engineering, and provided key components for the International Space Station. After ownership change,s it became part of ATK, which merged with Orbital Sciences Corp. in 2015.

Another ownership change is in the works since Northrop Grumman Corp. has announced plans to acquire Orbital ATK. 

On Wednesday, three days before launch, the Goleta employees gathered to hear a presentation from Stu Spath, who leads deep space exploration programs at Lockheed Martin in Colorado. 

“Give yourselves a hand,” Spath told the Goleta employees. “It’s a pleasure working with your team. We had a great time … We expect the same on Lucy.”

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

Orbital ATK employees wearing protective clothing. Click to view larger
Oribtal ATK-Goleta employees pose for a picture in front of solar arrays like those board the Mars spacecraft set to launch aboard an Atlas V rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base on Saturday. (Contributed photo)

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