Prof. Tom Pike of Imperial College London is part of the science team of the US-led InSight mission to Mars. His group has provided seismometers with which the NASA lander can discover "Marsquakes" that reveal the inner structure of the Red Planet. Over the coming months, Prof. Pike will keep us updated on the progress of InSight.
This was certainly the best way to see our mission as it left Earth, standing on a field in California with 1
We should have a direct view of the launch pad eight miles away.
At 4:00 am, after announcing the final go / no-go checkout on the big screens, the countdown started.
The act that I had desperately seen in the last decade should begin. But an uninvited and big onlooker had stood right in front of all our views.
A huge cloud of fog that grew in the afternoon into something that looked like a fresh mountain range came rolling in from the Pacific.
- Read Tom's previous entry: Ready to rumble
- James Tuttle Keanes's Guide to the Interior of Mars
From our whereabouts we had seen this thick gray mass the night before. And now, for the expectant audience in the field, we found our view of InSight in the Space Launch Complex 3 of Vandenberg Air Force Base completely blocked.
We would not see this start.
When the clock ticked, not even the starting crew was close enough to see the InSight rocket directly in the thickening fog.
We only had the footage on the big screens in our field, which showed the stack of engine stages, with our spacecraft up, lit up like a Hollywood set.
As the countdown on the monitors dropped to zero, the rocket slowly lifted off the pad, its exhaust continuing to add to the haze as it cleared the tower.
In our field, a thousand camera phones peeked into the fog front, trying in vain to capture even the faintest glow of Atlas V engines.
Then the rumble began as the sound rolled toward us, forming the crescendo of a huge fire rising invisibly in the mist ahead of us.
We could not see it, but we could certainly hear and feel the engines.
Phones were lowered and eyes turned away from the now useless screenshots of the rocket nocks. The rest of the world saw our rocket leave the earth, but we were the ones who felt it.
I had felt something similar at Oxford almost three years ago when we tested that our sensors would survive the vibrations of the launch.
Most seismometers are too sensitive to be moved, let alone shot down in a rocket, unless the mass and spring mechanism that detects the tremors of an earthquake is firmly secured to prevent them from being damaged protect.
One of my students at Imperial College, dr. Aifric Delahuntey, had written her PhD thesis on how to protect our delicate silicon mechanism by using tiny buffers of solder material that are stuck into etched pockets to absorb the shock and shock of the launch.
We tested many sensors on the shake table in Oxford, not only at the vibration levels expected from our introduction to Mars, but up to 10 times higher.
In our California area, as we felt the force of the launch eight miles away, our seismic shook Sensors directly on the rocket. My heart leapt into my mouth as I realized what our sensors needed to experience at that moment.
Even after all the tests, I was still scared.
The rumble faded as InSight continued its trajectory into a thinning atmosphere.
After the shock of the launch and the shock as the bow thruster of the first stage parted, our sensors felt something completely new.
InSight now made an Earth orbit before turning to Mars, and the sensors experienced their first experience of weightlessness.
We had experienced InSight's flawless start; maybe not quite as we had imagined, but thanks to the fog more than our own sensors had felt.
We went back to the buses to take us out of the Air Force Base before the Sun tried to break through the thickening fog.
In the meantime, our seismic sensors had a long way to go as they left Earth orbit with a final fire from the last engines.
Tom will have another update when InSight's instruments are turned on for a check-out on the cruise to Mars.