Looking for vital signs on Mars

Context & challenge

To really understand the health and well-being of a planet, you need to get under its skin – literally. That’s the mission for NASA’s InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) programme, which aims to study the ‘Inner Space’ of Mars. By sending a robotic explorer to probe the planet’s crust, mantle, and core, we can learn fascinating insights about how rocky planets were formed and have evolved over the last few billion years.

Pretty cool, right? No wonder our space experts wanted to get involved…

InSight’s lander arrived on the Red Planet in November 2018. It will use cutting-edge instruments to delve deep beneath the surface and seek the fingerprints of the processes that formed the terrestrial planets. In particular, science aims to learn a lot about the planet’s tectonic activity and meteorite impacts.

Client case study: SEIS

InSight will measure the planet’s “vital signs”: its “pulse” (seismology), “temperature” (heat flow), and “reflexes” (precision tracking). That’s where we come in to this remarkable story. Our client CNES (National Centre for Space Studies), based in Toulouse, France, is in charge of measuring the seismic activity of Mars with the science community involved in SEIS instrument development.

Solution & outcomes

We’ve helped the Centre’s team to build a 30kg, dome-shaped seismometer called SEIS (SeismicExperiment for Interior Structures). After its 205-day journey, reaching speeds of 10,000km/h, SEIS will measure the pulse of Mars by studying waves created by marsquakes, thumps of meteorite impacts, and even surface vibrations generated by activity in Mars’ atmosphere and by weather phenomena such as dust storms.

Our role is to help our client to integrate and test all SEIS models including the flight model, perform tests and qualifications in thermal and vacuum environment, vibrations and shocks, couplings, performances; and then realistically anticipate the actual conditions of deployment and operation of the seismometer.

How did we do this?

Our support included:

  • AIT (Assembly, Integration, and Test) activities and Main Instrument Rating (SEIS) Payload for several SEIS models (Structural and Thermal Model, Qualification Model, Flight Model and Flight Spare)
    • Mechanical assembly and electrical integration tests of SEIS sub-systems
    • SEIS instrument functional and performance tests including the characterization of VBB (Very Broad Band) seismic sensor
  • Improvement of EGSE (Electrical Ground Support Equipment)
  • Development of Mechanical Ground Support Equipment (MGSE)
  • Writing and improvements of test procedures

“In simple terms, InSight is effectively giving Mars a check-up, testing its vital signs for the first time in its 4.5 billion-year history.”

Nicolas Joachim, AIT Mechanic on SEIS

Case studies