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InSight Diary: Mars mission emerges from the mists

Prof Tom Pike from Imperial College London is part of the science team on the US-led InSight
mission to Mars. His group has supplied seismometers that will enable the Nasa lander to detect
"Marsquakes", which should reveal the internal structure of the Red Planet. Over the course of
the coming months, Prof Pike will be updating us on InSight's progress.

This was surely the best way to see our mission leave Earth, standing in a field in California with
1,500 people from the InSight mission team.

We should be able to get a direct view of the launch pad eight miles away.

At 4 o’clock in the morning after the final go/no-go checkout was announced over the big
screens, the final countdown began.

The act I had been desperate to see for the last decade was about to start. But an uninvited, and
huge, member of the audience had moved right in front of all our views.

A massive bank of fog, building in the afternoon into what looked like a fresh mountain range,
was rolling in from the Pacific.

From where we were staying we’d seen this thick grey mass emerging the previous evening. And
now for the expectant audience in the field, we found our view of InSight at the Space Launch
Complex 3 of Vandenberg Air Force Base completely blocked.

We were not going to see this launch.

As the clock ticked down, not even the launch crew were close enough to directly see the InSight
rocket shrouded in thickening fog.

We only had the footage on the big screens in our field which showed the stack of thruster
stages, with our spacecraft on top, lit like a Hollywood set.

Image copyrightNASA

Image caption

The InSight rocket during final countdown with the fog moving in

As the countdown on the monitors reached zero, the rocket lifted slowly off the pad, its exhaust
adding further to the murk as it cleared the tower.

In our field a thousand camera phones peered into the bank of fog in front of us, futilely trying to
capture even the faintest glow from the Atlas V thrusters.

Then the rumble began as the sound rolled towards us, building to the crescendo of a giant
blow-torch rising invisibly in the fog in front of us.

We might not see it, but we could certainly hear and feel the thrusters.

Image copyrightSIMON STÄHLER/ETH ZÜRICH

Image caption

This spectacular image by Simon Stähler was taken on Mt Figueroa which is about 50km from
Vandenburg

Phones were lowered and eyes turned away from the now useless screen footage from the
rocket cams. The rest of the world was seeing our rocket leave Earth, but we were the ones
feeling it.

I’d felt something rather like it before, nearly three years ago in Oxford, as we tested that our
sensors would survive the vibrations of launch.
Most seismometers are too delicate to be moved, let alone launched in a rocket, unless the mass
and spring mechanism that sense the vibrations of an earthquake are firmly secured to protect
them from damage.

Our design is quite different. One of my Imperial College students, Dr Aifric Delahunty, had
written her thesis on how to protect our delicate silicon mechanism by using tiny buffers made
of solder put into etched pockets to absorb the vibration and shock of launch.

Image copyrightTOM PIKE/IMPERIAL COLLEGE LONDON

Image caption

To protect the sensors, solder is melted in micro-pockets in the silicon to form buffers

We tested many sensors on the shake table at Oxford, not just at the vibration levels expected
from our launch to Mars, but up to 10 times higher.

Media captionSlow-motion video of vibration testing of the microseismometer's silicon sensor at


Oxford University

In our field in California while we were feeling the power of the launch eight miles away, our
seismic sensors were shaking right on top the rocket. My heart jumped into my mouth as I
realised just what our sensors must be experiencing at this moment.

Even after all the testing I could still scare myself.

The rumble faded as InSight continued its trajectory into a thinning atmosphere.

After the vibrations of launch, and the shock as the first-stage thruster separated, our sensors
would be feeling something quite new.
InSight was now making one orbit of the Earth before turning towards Mars, and the sensors
were having their first experience of weightlessness.

We had experienced InSight’s flawless launch; maybe not quite as we imagined it, but thanks to
the fog more as our own sensors had felt it.

We made our way back to the buses to take us off the air force base before the Sun would try to
break through the thickening fog.

Meanwhile, as they left Earth orbit with a final burn of the last thrusters, our seismic sensors had
a longer trip ahead.

Tom will have another update when InSight's instruments are switched on for a check-out on the
cruise to Mars.