Mars InSight Preparing to Unlock Secrets of Planet’s Interior


As humanity continues to aspire to reach Mars, space exploration missions to the planet are critical for giving scientists more information and greater understanding about the characteristics of the red planet and what it might take for humans to survive there.

NASA’s next planned robotic mission to the planet is Mars InSight, scheduled to launch in March 2018 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. InSight is a robotic exploration mission that will be the first to record measurements of Mars’ interior and will provide scientists with the greatest clues yet into evolutionary processes that shaped the rocky planets of the inner solar system.


Mars InSight recently completed assembly and is now undergoing rigorous environmental testing at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company’s facilities near Denver.

Two members of Lockheed Martin’s Mars InSight spacecraft team - Angus McMechen, chief systems engineer, and Jessica Neilson, systems engineer – recently shared their perspectives about being part of the InSight team and the importance of such missions to scientific advancement and humanity’s quest to explore deep space. 



What is your role on InSight? What are you learning from it?

I’m the chief systems engineer. We have team members who are completely focused on the mechanical or electrical designs, procurements, analysis tasks, or assembly and test. We in systems engineering are lucky enough to focus on the larger picture and try to help those disparate areas come together to complete the full package. I’ve learned that the arts of persuasion, negotiation and compromise are all equally important when working on a mission as sophisticated as InSight and ensuring we find the right balance of affordability and risk.

Why is it important to study Mars?

InSight isn’t just a Mars mission. It’s part of an investigation of how all the terrestrial planets formed. InSight’s instruments will peer deep into the Martian interior using seismic, rotational and thermal measures. To use the human senses as an analogy, InSight will measure the “vital signs” of Mars, such as its pulse, using a highly sensitive seismometer deployed to the surface; its temperature, using a heat flow probe that penetrates the soil to a depth of about five meters; and its reflexes, by using a high-precision X-Band radio transponder. That knowledge can then be related back to Earth and other terrestrial planets.

How meaningful is it for you to work on a spacecraft that’s going to explore the interior of Mars?

There’s nothing quite like being right there on the surface of Mars, and in InSight’s case, just under the surface. InSight will use multiple proven techniques to peer deep below Mars’ surface. I find it fascinating that the science community can take a single-station seismometer and, using advanced data processing techniques, tease out much of the planet’s composition. We expect many of the subsurface secrets of Mars to be laid bare!

Where will you be on launch and landing day?

Here at Lockheed Martin, the engineering team will be on console and monitoring the spacecraft – ready to respond in the event of a contingency. As a member of that team, I expect to be sequestered in our mission operations center and loving it. Big events such as launch and entry, descent, and landing are high-energy days, and the team is always at its absolute best. Team bonds are solidified, and there’s a great sense of camaraderie. I remember similar days on my most recent missions GRAIL and Spitzer, and I’m looking forward to that experience once again. 



What is your role on InSight? What are you learning from it?

I am a systems engineer on InSight. Unlike an electrical engineer developing an avionics card, or a software engineer developing code to control thruster firings, for instance, where these engineers are experts of their domains, a systems engineer’s role is to ensure that the different subsystems interface properly with one another. I’m learning how to interact between subsystems and bridge communication gaps between experts of disparate domains, and I’m also learning how the different pieces of a spacecraft all work together to create a successful mission.

What kinds of capabilities and innovations will InSight feature?

InSight will deploy the first seismometer to the surface of a foreign planet, and it will carry the first instrument to penetrate Mars’ surface more than the tens of centimeters that Phoenix and some of the rovers have. The heat transport instrument has a probe that will penetrate five meters into the Martian soil.

What are the challenges of working on a planetary mission, such as calculating launch windows?

Missions to Mars have very strict launch windows, approximately 26 months apart. If a planned launch window is missed, the program must delay over two years to have another shot at going. Space travel includes radiation concerns that terrestrial ventures don’t, requiring designs and employed technologies to be tolerant to upsets from solar particles. Also, once launched, the vehicle can’t be called back for a factory recall if a flaw is discovered later, like one can do with a car airbag issue, for instance. So, prior to launch, a huge amount of testing and analysis goes into verifying that the spacecraft will perform as required to satisfy the mission requirements.

Where will you be on launch and landing day?

On launch day, I’m hoping to be in Vandenberg either directly supporting the launch on console or watching the launch outside. Similarly for landing day, I hope to be directly supporting the operations activities in the Mission Support Area here in Littleton, Colorado. If I’m not supporting that, you can bet I’ll be watching NASA TV at home.


Fortune InSight Team