Engineers and workers gathered in a conference room at Redmond’s Aerojet Rocketdyne facility on Nov. 26 to watch as NASA’s InSight lander gently touched down on Mars, thanks to the rockets they manufactured.
Aerojet’s Redmond campus designs, tests and manufactures thrusters and rockets used in NASA, Boeing and Lockheed Martin spacecrafts — which help launch, guide and land the vehicles. The company has been in Redmond for 50 years and has been part of all eight successful NASA Mars missions. It employs more than 400 people in Redmond and has produced more than 20,000 rocket engines and thrusters.
“The path to Mars goes through Redmond,” said Aerojet’s general manager Ken Young at the Monday livestream viewing.
The InSight started its descent around 11:42 a.m. West Coast time and reached its peak heat heading into the Martian atmosphere around 11:48 a.m. During entry, the lander’s heat shields can reach up to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. A few minutes later at 11:54 a.m., the NASA livestream announced the lander had successfully landed on Mars. The room erupted in cheers and applause.
Aerojet’s thrusters had successfully helped the InSight touch down. During re-entry, the lander left orbit at around 14,100 mph, where it was first slowed by the planet’s atmosphere before a parachute deployed. When the InSight was only meters from the ground, it detached and Aerojet’s thrusters gently guided it to the ground. The lander was launched from Earth on May 5 and had been travelling to Mars since then.
“I’m just very excited, I’m excited for our team,” Young said. “It’s like Christmas day for us.”
NASA hopes the InSight lander will operate on Mars for at least 20 years as it studies the “inner space” of Mars. In particular, the lander will do an in-depth study of the crust, mantle and core by digging through it and taking samples. NASA hopes to learn about its early formation and that of Mercury, Venus and Earth more than 4 billion years ago.
The InSight mission is seeking to uncover how a rocky body forms and evolves to become a planet by investigating the interior structure and composition of Mars, according to the NASA website. It will also observe the rate of tectonic activity and meteorite impacts. Additionally, InSight’s heat flow probe will burrow deeper than any other tools before it to investigate how much heat is still flowing out of the planet. This will help scientists see if Earth and Mars are made of the same materials.
Interest in researching and sending humans to the Red Planet has increased in recent years as private companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin have been developing technology aimed at doing just that. Former President Barack Obama also mentioned it several times in speeches and op-eds.