After a foggy departure from Vandenberg Air Force Base in May and a fiery descent on Monday, NASA’s newest Mars lander arrived on the Red Planet’s surface, sparking celebration from the Goleta company that crafted key components.
“Touch down confirmed. InSight is on the surface of Mars,” a NASA employee said, calling out the last of several milestones to bring cheers and applause from the Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems employees in Goleta.
Then they waited.
The Goleta force made the UltraFlex Solar Array System, key to keeping the batteries charged so Mars InSight — Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport — can conduct its science mission for two Earth years.
Those wings have 3,200 solar cells, with each segment stored for the flight and ready for unfurling, likened to opening a Chinese fan, shortly after landing.
But due to the location of other spacecraft used to relay communications from Mars and orbital mechanics, NASA officials did not receive confirmation of the solar array deployment for more than five hours.
“I’m just relieved, but nervous, excited,” Jim Spink, Northrop Grumman program manager, said early Monday afternoon. “There’s a lot focused attention on the array deployment. Everybody involved with the mission knows if the arrays don’t work, it’s a bad day.”
Later Monday, NASA officials provided the final piece of happy news.
“The InSight team can rest a little easier tonight now that we know the spacecraft solar arrays are deployed and recharging the batteries,” said Tom Hoffman, InSight’s project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.
Those solar arrays, each 7 feet long when open, provide 600 to 700 watts on a clear day, enough to power a household blender and InSight’s science instruments, NASA officials said.
“We’re absolutely thrilled that our UltraFlex solar arrays are both deployed and producing power for Mars InSight,” Spink said. “We carefully design them and exhaustively test them, so we’re always confident they’ll work as-planned. But it’s always a huge relief to get the confirmation of success.
“Everyone here understands what’s at stake, and we put a lot of pride into making sure things go well like they did today.”
Spink also revealed that the arrays sported a small, lightweight label carrying the names of the Goleta employees at the time the wings were built.
On Monday, the Northrop Grumman workers gathered in the Goleta break room for a pizza party while viewing the NASA coverage, one of several viewing sessions that occurred throughout Santa Barbara County and across the globe, including a screen at Times Square in New York City.
“Super exciting, right?” Spink said to his workers before relaying that confirmation of the solar array deployment would take time, prompting jokes about ordering more pizza for a second celebration.
For the Goleta-based workers, the West Coast’s first mission to travel to another planet early May 5 should have provided the sight of their work heading to space from their own backyard.
“The best launch we ever heard,” Spink said, referring to the incredibly foggy morning that prevented thousands of spectators position in Lompoc from seeing the blastoff.
The Goleta operation has 130 employees, with approximately 50 involved in the InSight solar arrays manufacturing at various times over approximately two years. Northrop Grumman workers across the country also were responsible for some of the other components on InSight, Spink added.
This marked the third Mars mission to sport the Goleta-made solar array system, but only second to reach the Red Planet.
The first mission, Mars Surveyor 2001 lander, was canceled, but served as a template for future designs.
Details learned from other missions led to innovations to make sturdier solar arrays, such as replacing components Spink describe as “pretty light and dainty” but needing to withstand harsh Martian winds
“So if you imagine it’s an umbrella on the beach, you’ve got to keep it from turning inside out,” Spink told his coworkers.
The Goleta and Vandenberg connections weren’t the only Central Coast connections.
A pair of briefcase-sized craft, called Mars Cube One or MarCO, that hitched a ride on the Atlas V rocket along with InSight marked the first time the tiny spacecraft played a role in an interplanetary mission. The MarCO team included two interns from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, NASA officials said.
InSight, with Lockheed Martin Corp. as its prime contractor, had to survive several incredibly hazardous maneuvers as it descended toward the surface of the Red Planet.
Shortly after arriving, InSight snapped a photo — through a dust cover— of its view on the Red Planet, confirming the relatively flat locale with few rocks, the landing site scientists sought.
A second more clear image from InSight, which stand 3.5 feet tall, arrived Monday night.
InSight’s science mission will not start for a few months since the team must unpack the instruments to begin gathering data about the interior of Mars, including temperature and marsquakes, information they say will help educate them about Earth.
“There’s a quiet beauty here. Looking forward to exploring my new home,” InSight’s human helpers posted to the NASA InSight Twitter page on Monday after landing.