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.
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.
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.
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.
At 14:13 UTC on March 30th 2018, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 from foggy Vandenberg Air Force Base. Although designated F9-52 this was the 51st Falcon 9 launch. Using a v1.2 variant booster, the rocket delivered 10 Iridium NEXT satellites into orbit. This was the fifth of eight planned Iridium NEXT missions.
From Vandenberg AFB Space Launch Complex 4 East, the first stage of the rocket lasted 2 minutes 34 seconds, separating a few seconds after. The second engine fired for 6 minutes 23 seconds. This part of the webcast was purposefully cut short due to a NOAA remote sensing licensing requirements. This is an issue with SpaceX not having the right licence to broadcast images from certain parts of space. This burn placed the rocket in a roughly 180 x 625 km parking orbit. The Thales Alenia Space satellite then deployed an hour after launch, after a second brief 11 second burn. This put the satellites into a 625km x 86.6 deg orbit.
The rocket used another “Fairing 2.0”, which is slightly larger than usual, but equipped with recovery systems. These systems include thrusters, a guidance system, and a parafoil. The ship, named Mr Steven has a large net to capture the halves of the fairing. Again, the ship failed to catch one of the fairings, due to a parachute system issue. In a tweet by Elon Musk, it was reported that the GPS guided parafoil twisted so the fairing impacted the water at high speed. He also said that SpaceX are doing helicopter drop tests to fix the issue.
Five of the six previously used Falcon 9 vehicles have been fully expended, this was the tenth flight of a previously-flown Falcon 9 first stage. Four of these ten have been purposely expended during their second flight. The first stage (B1041.2) was previously flown during the Iridium NEXT 3 launch on October 9th, 2017. It performed the 2 minute 34 second boost, and performed what SpaceX call a “simulated landing” into the ocean. SpaceX appear to be only launching a reused stages for one reflight, with the soon to launch “block 5” likely to be reused multiple times. Currently the company only have 4 first stages that might be flown, with one allocated for the upcoming CRS-14 dragon resupply mission.