Mars InSight Has Been Busy

insight selfie
This is NASA InSight’s first full selfie on Mars. It displays the lander’s solar panels and deck. On top of the deck are its science instruments, weather sensor booms and UHF antenna. Credit: Nasa/JPL-Caltech.

So I have talked previously about the launch of the latest lander on Mars, named Mars Insight. Launched on the 5th of May 2018 by an Atlas V 401 from Vandenberg AFB, it began its 6 month journey to the red planet. Travelling across 484 million km it landed on 26th of November 2018. It landed much like the Curiosity and Phoenix missions with a parachute decent and then using rockets to lower the lander onto the surface gently. The mass of the lander is about 358 kg, but due to the gravity on Mars being two thirds less it only weighs 134.6 kg on the surface. Just a few hours after touchdown the Mars Odyssey orbiter relayed signals indicating that the solar panels had successfully opened, generating power. The relayed signal also contained a pair of images of the landing site. For the next few weeks InSight checked the health of the on board systems and monitor the weather and temperature of the landing site.

InSights workspace
This mosaic, made of 52 individual images from NASA’s InSight lander, shows the workspace where the spacecraft will eventually set its science instruments. The lavender annotation shows where InSight’s seismometer and heat flow probe can be placed. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The images relayed were used to find the best area to place the Seismometer instrument. There was then some time for scientists to evaluate the information and pick the best spot to place the sensitive instrument. On the 19th of December Insight used its 8ft robotic arm to pick up the Seismometer from the deck of the lander, and place it on the ground nearby. The position picked was one fairly free of rocks, making the leveling process easier. There was then another set of a few weeks to adjust the cable and ensure the SEIS instrument was perfectly placed. Then the arm picked up a protective cover from the lander to place over the instrument. This is designed to minimise noise from the surrounding atmosphere, being introduced from huge temperature changes and wind vibrations. This will allow the seismometer to pick up the tiny tremors that the planet may have. This is the first time another planet has been studied this way, the only other planetary body being the Moon. Viking 1 and 2 had seismometers on board but design flaws meant the results were inconclusive.

Temperature is one of the biggest issues with a mission like this. On Mars the temperature can range over 90 degrees Celsius in just a single sol (Martian day). The protective cover is ringed with a thermal barrier and a section of chain mail around the bottom. The wind and thermal shield has been specifically designed for the environment to moderate the temperatures. JPL has a history dealing with Mars temperatures from the many missions it has sent there including the Phoenix lander, and the Curiosity rover. The SEIS instrument was provided by the French Space Agency CNES, and developed by the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris, with JPL building the wind and thermal shield. There is also a great British part of the instrument with some of the silicon sensors designed and fabricated by Imperial College London. The microseismometers were designed to pick up the faintest seismic activity from the surface. Scientists from Oxford’s Department of Physics also supported the development, and the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory’s RAL Space worked closely with the team to develop the front electronics of the instrument as well as the space qualification.

SEIS instrument cutaway
Cutaway illustration showing interior components of SEIS. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/CNES/IPGP
One of the microseismometer sensors, carved from a single piece of silicon 25mm square. Credit: Imperial College/T.Pike.

On the 12th of February the lander deployed the HP3 package onto the surface. Known as the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package, it was placed about a meter away from the seismometer. The Idea of HP3 is to measure the heat flow through Mars’s subsurface, hopefully helping scientists to figure out how much energy it takes to build a rocky planet like Mars. An interesting instrument, it has a self-hammering spike, or mole, allowing it to burrow up to 5m below the surface. This is much deeper than any previous mission. Viking 1 only scooped down 8.6 inches, and the predecessor of Insight, Phoenix dug to 7 inches. The probe was provided by the German Aerospace Centre (DLR). A tether attached to the top of the mole features heat sensors to measure the temperature of the Martian subsurface. Heat sensors in the mole itself will measure the soils thermal conductivity (how easily the heat moves through the surface). The mole plans to stop every 50 centimetres to take the measurements, as the hammering creates friction, releasing heat that would likely impact the instruments readings. It is then heated up by 28 degrees Celsius over 24 hours, with the temperature sensors measuring how rapidly this happens.

A GIF of the Insight lander placing the instruments on the ground. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Along with the Insight lander, the launch also contained a new first, a pair of cubesats known as MarCO-1 and MarCO-2. The size of small suitcases the pair were the first cubesats to enter and work in deep space. The team nicknamed the WALL-E and EVE, and they functioned as communications relays during the insight landing, beaming back data from the decent, along with the first image. WALL-E also managed to capture its own great images of Mars as it soared past it. The mission cost was about $18.5 million, much less than most missions, and was designed by JPL as a technology demonstrator mission. Neither is still in contact with Earth, with WALL-E losing contact on the 29th of December 18, and EVA losing contact on the 4th of January 19. JPL says they will attempt to contact the pair again in the future, but it is unlikely. The MarCO satellites will still live on though, with some of the spare parts going towards other cubesat missions, including experimental radios, antennas and propulsion systems. They also pushed the idea of using commercial parts to develop the system.

Engineer Joel Steinkraus uses sunlight to test the solar arrays on one of the Mars Cube One (MarCO) spacecraft at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
MarCO-B, one of the experimental Mars Cube One (MarCO) CubeSats, took these images as it approached Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Just as an addition, there is a great comic that can be found here about Mars Insight, by the oatmeal. It is worth a quick read.

Thank you for reading, take a look at my other posts if you are interested in space, electronics, or military history. If you are interested, follow me on Twitter to get updates on projects I am currently working on.

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The Space Missions of 2018

2018 has definitely been a big year for space, and space exploration. I have managed to capture a few of the great moments like the launch of InSight, JAXA landing rovers on an asteroid, and the launch of the Parker Probe. There have been a few others that are notable mentions, and that is the point of this post, to talk about some great launched missions, and others that have finished their jobs, purposely or forced.


The British built Bepicolombo launched in October 20th, to begin its 7 year journey to visit Mercury. Currently one of the least explored planets in the solar system, Bepicolombo intends to change that. When it arrives in late 2025 it will endure temperatures of over 350 °C, and be there for at least a year, possibly for twice that. It is made up of two spacecraft, the Mercury Planet Orbiter (MPO) lead by ESA, and the Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO) lead by JAXA. The aim is to measure the composition, atmosphere and magnetosphere of Mercury to understand its history. This could lead to understanding more about how other planets such as Earth formed. BepiColombo is named after Professor Giuseppe (Bepi) Colombo (1920-1984) from the University of Padua, Italy. He made big leaps in understanding Mercury, and suggested to NASA how to use a gravity-assist swing-by of Venus to place Mariner 10 into a solar orbit of Mercury.

Bepicolombo artists impression
Artist’s impression of the BepiColombo spacecraft in cruise configuration. The Mercury Transfer Module is at the bottom. The Mercury Planetary Orbiter is in the middle. The Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter sits inside the sunshield, visible at the top. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab


Back in May I posted about how an Atlas V had just lifted the Mars Insight lander. In late November the $814 million lander it reached its target of the Elysium Planitia region of Mars, landing safely. The aim is for it investigate how the processes that shaped all the inner rocky planets more than 4 billion years ago worked. It uses two seismometers (one of which built by RAL space in the UK) and a number of other instruments to study the crust, mantle and core of the red planet. It works by measuring how much the area shakes when asteroids hit the planet. Also measuring the heat flow and precision tracking it is getting a glimpse of Mars we have yet to see. The launch also allowed for two cubesats, MarCO-A and MarCO-B to be the first to be launched into deep space. The first test of miniaturised cubesat technology being used on another planet. This mission will be one to watch for the near future.

There’s a quiet beauty here. Looking forward to exploring my new home. #MarsLanding— NASA InSight (@NASAInSight) November 27, 2018


A bit sadder news is the end of the Kepler space telescope after 9 years service. It has collected a huge amount of data in its lifetime, finding the night sky is filled with billions of hidden planets, more planets than stars. This may seem obvious but is not easy to prove. During its time the planet hunter has found evidence of more than 2,600 planets outside our solar system, and left hints at many more, paving the way for future planet hunters and getting good engineering data on what works and what doesn’t. Telescopes such as ARIEL which will launch in the net decade will have better design due to Kepler. The space telescope had been running low on fuel for months, and struggled to point the correct way. After the 4 year mission it continued to work a different mission named K2. In October it was officially declared dead, left in orbit as it may have been dangerous for it to enter the atmosphere.

The Kepler Space Telescope mission, by the numbers
The Kepler Space Telescope mission, by the numbers. Credit: NASA/Ames/Wendy Stenzel

Parker Solar Probe

Back in august I wrote about the classic Delta IV heavy launching with the Parker Solar Probe aboard. The aim is to get closer to the sun than previously possible. Over the next seven years the probe will make 24 close approaches to the sun, with the aim of eventually getting within 3.8 million miles of the surface. The previous record (that Parker has now broken) was 26.6 million miles, set in 1976. It will revolutionise our understanding of the sun, and how the changing conditions can affect the solar system. It will use Venus’ gravity to slowly get closer to the sun. As a reference, we are 93 million miles away from the sun. It will eventually fly through the sun’s outer atmosphere, known as the Corona for the first time, getting brand new, in situ measurements. The spacecraft has a 4.5 inch thick carbon composite shield to protect it from the heat and radiation. The temperatures will reach over 1300 C.

Parker Solar Probe in the Fairing
Parker Solar Probe in the Fairing, ready to be put on the rocket in the clean room. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman


Back in April I posted about the launch of the TESS exoplanet hunter by a Falcon 9. I have already talked about exoplanets and planet hunters, and this is a big part of that plan. TESS stands for Transiting Exoplanet Surveying Satellite, and it does what it says on the tin, it is surveying the sky for potential exoplanets. Basically it is looking for exoplanets that could harbour life. The expectation is that it will catalog thousands of planet candidates and vastly increase the known number of exoplanets. Approximately 300 are expected to be Earth-sized and super-Earth-sized exoplanets that can then use the future more complex telescopes such as JWST to look at in more detail. The satellite will look at the sky for two years by breaking it up into 26 sections, and looking at each one for 27 days at a time. Unlike Kepler and K2 TESS will be looking at brighter stars, meaning ground based observatories can corroborate the observations.

the TESS telescope
The TESS satellite before launch, the four cameras can be seen on the top of the spacecraft; Credit: NASA.


In September I posted about the Dawn spacecraft and the rise of Ion Engines. With the loss of the Dawn mission around the same time as Kepler, they ran out of fuel within two days of each other. The 11 year Dawn mission racked up a few very important records. It is the first spacecraft to orbit two different celestial bodies, and the first to orbit any object in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. It is also a record breaker for electric speed. Travelling over 25,700 mph. Visiting Ceres and Vesta, it found out some very important scientific data that tells us a huge amount about the formation of our solar system. With a large proportion of the meteorites hitting Earth coming from these two bodies, Dawn showed the difference between the potential dwarf planets. One of the early uses of ion engines, it also showed the potential of the efficient form of travel, and now many more satellites are using them.

Dawn prior to encapsulation at its launch pad on July 1, 2007. Credit: NASA/Amanda Diller

Mars Rovers

This is a mixed bag, we have already had great news about the InSight lander, with it recording sounds of Martian winds, the rovers also have big news this year. In June the Curiosity rover found Organic matter in the Martian soil. The samples, taken from 3 billion year old mudstone contained complex hydrocarbons. This along with its detection of methane changes in the atmosphere are one step along the way to finding evidence of life on other planets. There have also been many more photos from the red planet, with Curiosity taking a few more selfies. See here how the car sized rover achieves the great pictures. On the other side of it there was a huge Martian storm that may have killed the Opportunity rover by covering the solar panels in dust. Although there are still hopes the rover can start communications again, we will have to see.

Curiosity in a dust storm
An image shared by Seán Doran on Sunday of the Mars Curiosity in the middle of a dust storm reported to cover an area the size of the US and Russia Combined. CredIt: NASA/JPL/Seán Doran.

Asteroid Rovers

In late september, another great story came out, that JAXA (the Japanese space agency) successfully landed a number of rovers on an asteroid. Still to launch all of the four onto the surface, there are already great images from the surface of an asteroid. The little rovers use a hopping mechanism to get around, as the gravity on the asteroid is so small a wheeled rover just wouldn’t work. The spacecraft will also be attempting to collect samples to return to Earth in the coming years. The Hayabusa 2 probe is a follow up to the Hayabusa probe which was not a sample return. The second launched on December 3rd 2014 and rendezvoused with the near-earth asteroid 162173 Ryugu on the 27th of June 2018. Currently in the process of surveying the asteroid for a year and a half, it will depart in December 2019, returning to Earth in December 2020.

First pictures from a MINERVA-II-1 rover that landed on the asteroid. Credit: JAXA.

Thank you for reading, take a look at my other posts if you are interested in space, electronics, or military history. If you are interested, follow me on Twitter to get updates on projects I am currently working on. Most of all, thank you for taking the time to read my posts this year! So all have a Happy New Year, and here’s to a great 2019 in space!

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Notes From NASA’s Chief Scientist Jim Green’s Talk on The Search For Extraterrestrial Life

A few weeks ago my place of work, STFC, was lucky enough to host NASA’s chief scientist Jim Green for a talk titled “The search for life on Earth in space and time”. At the time of writing there is a version of the talk on University of Oxfords Facebook page. A really interesting talk for anyone interested in space, and our solar system. It also goes much more in depth that this post today and gives a real insight into current science of our solar system. A planetary scientist himself he talks about the planets in our solar system that could harbor life and those that might have done previously. I found it a real insight into what NASA’s goals are and where they are looking for signs of life. I personally enjoyed the talk as Jim Green hosts the “Gravity Assist” podcast made by NASA.

logo for NASA’s Gravity Assist podcast hosted by Jim Green. Credit: NASA.

The first real point he made was how to define what life is, which is a reasonable question. If you want to go out and find life on other planets, how do you know when you have found it? Spacecraft and astronauts need instruments and tools to detect things, and to build those instruments you need to know what they are looking for. The definition they came up with was that life needs three things, to metabolize, reproduce and evolve. This is a pain because it’s difficult to see any of those things directly. If you take just the metabolizing part and break it down it makes it a bit simpler, you need organics, the energy source, and water. You also need some way to get rid of waste. Plus we need to take into account time, you could have a fully habitable environment but not have life if it isn’t the right time.

The ingredients needed for life, a slide in the Jim Green Talk. Credit: NASA

Time is a really important factor, Earth has existed for 4.6 billion years, and it hasn’t always had life. They have been at least 5 mass extinction events in that time as well. To really see what is happening we need to look at how the sun has changed over that time, it is the thing in the solar system with the most effect on us. Since its birth 4.6 billion years ago it has brightened, with the luminosity increasing up to 25 or 30% by some estimates. We know that the Goldilocks region or habitable zone of a star exists where water can exist in all three states, but that depends on how big the star is and how bright it is, and therefore over time this Goldilocks region changes. This would make life simpler when looking for exoplanets, just work out where the habitable zone is and choose planets in it, unfortunately it isn’t that simple. 

A diagram of how the habitable zone of a star changes over time with different brightnesses. Credit: NASA

Let’s start off with Mercury, the closest planet to the sun. It is larger than the moon, but it isn’t large by any means. It has a magnetic field, it is nearly tidally locked and it is incredibly hot. It out gasses, and from Messenger data most scientists have agreed that it has never had a substantial atmosphere, so water is very unlikely to have existed there. The next candidate would be Venus, it is a similar size to the Earth after all. The Soviet Union Venera missions looked at the atmosphere and the temperature, and found it is extremely hot. The surface is hot enough to melt lead, and the pressure is 90 times that of our own planet. The NASA Magellan probe found it to be highly volcanic, with a very thick atmosphere. This means there is basically no chance of water, and makes Venus a bad choice for finding life today. Using some fairly interesting concepts, scientists have modeled what early Venus may have looked like and found it likely had water at some point, but the runaway greenhouse effect along with the lack of magnetic field has stripped all water away. That being said one day we could produce probes good enough to dig through the surface and look for signs of life below the ever evolving surface layer.

Five global views of Venus by the Magellan probe. Credit: NASA.

The next obvious choice is Mars, much larger than the Moon, but only about half the size of Earth. It’s a bit of a runt due to Jupiter. The asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter is made of rocks that could have been a part of Mars, but Jupiter’s massive gravitational pull denied that. We also know that at some point in its life it had oceans that covered two thirds of the surface that could have been up to a mile deep in places. It then went through massive climate change, and it lost its magnetic field. That means the solar winds have stripped away the atmosphere and left a dry and arid surface. The pressure is about 1% that of Earth. Plus as it is fairly close to Earth it means that we can visit it fairly easily. From a number of missions including satellites and a number of rovers, we know that there are organic compounds on the surface, and likely water under the surface. Although not a guarantee of life it is a big hint. There a number of missions planned including ESA’s ExoMars, and NASA’s InSight and the 2020 rover. These missions are designed to drill into the surface and understand more about the planet, and what the water held.

True color image of Mars taken by the OSIRIS instrument on the ESA Rosetta spacecraft during its February 2007 flyby of the planet. Credit: ESA.

We talked about the habitable zone, but there is another line (or sphere technically) that planetary scientists use called the snow line. Lying somewhere in the Kuiper belt, it defines that liquid water cannot exist beyond it. For a long time that was thought to be true, but research has revealed that some moons have liquid water below their icy surface. In 1611 Galileo discovered some of Jupiter’s moons, and they have been visited and studied by the Juno and Galileo probe. All the moons at one point had an ice crust. Scientists have found that some moons such as IO, lost this crust and have become very volcanic and volatile. Ganymede, Callisto and Europa still have this ice crust. Only Ganymede and Europa have any signs of a watery ocean underneath the crust, but Ganymede is somewhat ruled out from having life because of its very cold temperatures. This leaves Europa in this Jupiter habitable zone. Slightly smaller than out moon, it has been shown to have watery geysers that reach 400 km above the planet. That would be equivalent to Earth geysers hitting the space station. From tests by Galileo data it has been shown to have twice as much water than on Earth. Plus it has been like that for 4.6 billion years, so that is a good indication that there could be microbial or even complex life below the surface. There is a mission planned to go to visit Europa called Europa Clipper.

An image showing the icy crust of Jupiter’s moon Europa. Europa is about 3,160 kilometers (1,950 miles) in diameter, or about the size of Earth’s moon. This image was taken on September 7, 1996, by the camera on board the Galileo spacecraft during its second orbit around Jupiter. Credit: NASA/JPL/DLR.

Then there is Saturn, which has had many studies, and the thing that stands out is the moon Enceladus. It is the moon that really drew NASA’s attention to the possibility of water on these distant moons. It also has geysers, coming from huge cracks in the southern hemisphere. They are huge walls or water just pouring out of the body. With it being only a small moon of around 300 km, it suffers from tidal forces. The water pours out less when it is closer to to Saturn, and more when it is further away (due to an elliptical orbit). This has been measured and shown, as the Galileo spacecraft actually flew through one of the geysers and didn’t know it. We have spacecraft that have literally tasted this water. About 98% of the water that comes out of the geysers falls back onto the moon, but that 2% escapes and forms an e-ring. The Cassini spacecraft also flew through these plumes and managed to measure some of this water, and more importantly small bits of rock. It gives indications of hydro thermal vents being the cause of these plumes of water.

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft captured this view as it neared icy Enceladus for its closest-ever dive past the moon’s active south polar region. Credit: NASA/JPL

Another spectacular moon of Saturn in the running is the famous Titan. It is bigger than the planet Mercury, the atmosphere is about twice that of ours, and is dominated by nitrogen. Trace gasses of methane and ethane have been detected, and it has large bodies of liquid. Radar images of the surface piercing through the thick atmosphere show rocky terrain and flat lakes of liquid methane. This has spurred on the idea that life could be very different, and could survive in such liquids as methane. So if we want a chance of finding life not like us then Titan would be the best place to go. There are a number of important missions that are planned to visit Titan and make much better measurements of the surface. Including robotic missions and maybe even very simple rovers. By all accounts it is still in early stages.

These six infrared images of Saturn’s moon Titan represent some of the clearest, most seamless-looking global views of the icy moon’s surface produced so far. The views were created using 13 years of data acquired by the Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) instrument on board NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Nantes/University of Arizona

This data taken from these missions have allowed us to look further afield to find exoplanets that could fit what we now use to define habitable planets. Missions such as Kepler have refined the way to detect planets by looking at stars for long periods of time. looking at how stars dim and wobble when planets go in front if them. The big exoplanet mission for NASA currently is TESS. Launched in April it has gone through its commissioning and is already finding planets out there. The idea for it is to take large amounts of images over a long time and try to find as many exoplanets as possible. Hopefully producing thousands of potential planets, the best looking ones can then use much more powerful and advanced telescopes such as JWST to make better measurements and tease out the atmosphere and makeup of these exoplanets. One closing point that Jim Green made, when you go out and look at the stars at night, just remember that there are more planets on our galaxy than there are stars visible in the sky. 

One of the first images taken by NASA TESS, centered on the southern constellation Centaurus, reveals more than 200,000 stars. Credit: NASA.

Thank You for reading, take a look at my other posts if you are interested in space or electronics, or follow me on Twitter to get updates on projects I am currently working on.

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Atlas V Launches InSight

Atlas V on the pad
The Atlas V on the launch pad at vandenberg AFB in California, Credit: ULA flickr.

At 11:05 UTC on May 5th 2018 the forth Atlas launch of the year launched the long awaited InSight mission on a course for mars. Launching from Vandenberg Air Force Base the AV-078 (the launch designation) was an Atlas V in 401 configuration. It was the first interplanetary launch from the west coast of the United States. Liftoff of the Atlas V with a 4m payload fairing was from Space Launch Complex 3 East.

Sam Suns first tweet
An awesome photo of the launch that blew up on twitter, taken from the sky. Credit @BirdsNSpace on Twitter.

The rocket had one main payload, the InSight Mission and two CubeSats. InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) is a robotic lander designed to study the interior of the planet Mars.  I weighed 694 kg at launch, including a 425 kg fueled lander. The lander carries a probe that will be hammered 15m into the Mars surface, a seismometer, a magnetometer (first expected to land on the surface of Mars), a laser reflector, along with other instruments. The lander also has a robotic arm to move payloads around, but there will be another post in the future discussing the instruments in more detail. The two CubeSats on board are known as MarCO-A and MarCO-B, each weighing about 13.5 kg. They will fly by Mars while conducting a data relay experiment with InSight.

Insight Fairing
The 4m payload fairing on top of the Atlas V containing the InSight payload. Credit: ULA Flickr.

The design of InSight was developed from the 2008 Phoenix Mars Lander. The previous lander was launched on Delta 2 rockets compared to the Atlas V, both built and launched by the United Launch Alliance. The Atlas V does have excess capability for the mission (slightly overkill) but this allowed it to be launched from Vandenberg AFB. Previous solar orbit missions (like this one) were launched from the Cape to gain the site’s eastward earth rotational velocity. Vandenberg launches have to fly south or westerly direction across the Pacific Ocean. InSight was originally planned to launch in 2016 but was delayed to 2018 due to the main instrument failing.

Liftoff od Insight
The Atlas V lifts off, unfortunately the fog rolled in so very few great shots were taken by the remote cameras. Credit: ULA Flickr.

AV-078 started on a 158 degree azimuth, aiming towards a 63.4 degree Low Earth Parking Orbit. The LOX/RP-1 fueled RD-180 powered first stage fired for 4 minutes and 4 seconds. The Centaur’s RL10C-1 LOX/LH2 engine then fired for 8 minutes and 48 seconds to reach the parking orbit. It then coasted for 65 minutes and 40 seconds then performing a second, 5 minute and 23 second burn to accelerate into a trans-Mars solar orbit. Insight separated 9 minutes after at about T+1 hour, 33 minutes and 19 seconds. The CubeSats separated shortly after.

Aaron Colier Atlas V launch
An awesome long exposure shot of the launch taken by Aaron Collier. From roughly 85 miles away. Credit @aaroncollier96 on Twitter.