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Former Maui resident brings prestigious Space Flight Mechanics Meeting to the West Side

By BY CINDY SCHUMACHER - | Jan 31, 2019

Former Maui resident Jill Seubert brought her JPL Navigation Team to the 29th Space Flight Mechanics Meeting at the Sheraton Maui Resort and Spa. Pictured (from left) are: Eric Gustafson, Mark Wallace, Sarah Elizabeth McCandless, Seubert, Allen Halsell, Fernando Abilleira and Min-Kun Chung. PHOTO BY CINDY SCHUMACHER.

KAANAPALI – On Jan. 13-17, the Sheraton Maui Resort and Spa welcomed the 29th Space Flight Mechanics Meeting to Kaanapali for the first time in the history of the conference.

Hosted by the American Astronautical Society (AAS) and co-hosted by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), the five-day West Side meeting of approximately 320 participants from 15 countries met to discuss past, present and future missions to explore the solar system.

AAS is a professional scientific group in the United States dedicated to the advancement of space science and space exploration. They support NASA’s Vision for Space Exploration and focus on strengthening the global space program through co-operation with international space organizations – all working together to land rovers on Mars; sample the atmosphere of Jupiter, Pluto, Saturn, Mercury, the Sun and Moon; and more.

Former Maui resident and conference General Chair Matt Wilkins, senior scientist for advanced programs at L3 ADS, said, “Maui was a great choice for our winter meeting, because historically. early Polynesians traveled by stars, and recently Hokule’a, a double-hulled voyaging canoe, made an extraordinary voyage with exclusively Polynesian navigation techniques. Hawaii, with its exceptionally clear air and high mountains, offers some of the clearest daytime and nighttime views of the stars, Moon and planets. This setting is a good reason to bring engineers, scientists and other space-related professionals to Maui.”

Another former Maui resident, Jill Seubert, navigation engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), has supported several Mars missions, including the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, NASA’s Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations Geodesy and Heat Transport Mission (InSight), and the future Mars Science Mission 2020, designed to study the deep interior of the planet Mars and look for evidence of habitable conditions in the ancient past.

The nail-biting 6.5 minutes of InSight’s landing sequence was broadcast world-wide in real time. PHOTO COURTESY OF NASA.

Seubert was introduced to the world of spacecraft navigation in her role as an astrodynamics researcher at the Air Force Research Laboratory in Kihei – a job that altered her own trajectory.

“InSight is a mission of firsts,” Seubert explained in her conference presentation.

“Its May 5, 2018 launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, marked the first interplanetary launch from the West Coast and first mission to place a single stationary lander on Mars to address fundamental issues of planetary and solar system science. By studying the size, thickness, density and overall structure of Mars’ core, mantle and crust, as well as the rate at which heat escapes from the planet’s interiors, InSight will provide a glimpse into the evolutionary processes of all the rocky planets in the inner Solar System, including our own.”

Insight’s entry, descent and landing data were available in real-time thanks to the two relay nano-spacecraft called Mars Cube One A and B – the first cubesats designed to operate beyond Earth’s orbit – which accompanied InSight on its way to Mars.

After successful touch-down on Mars on Nov. 26, 2018, the InSight lander began to probe the depths of the Martian interior. The science phase is expected to last for two years, which could bring a new understanding of how the Solar System’s terrestrial planets Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars and Earth’s Moon formed and evolve.

Insight, a joint endeavor of NASA’s JPL and Lockheed Martin Corporation, carried three prime instruments to its Martian home: (1) a seismometer to measure the propagation of marsquakes, landslides and meteorite impacts throughout the planet; (2) a heat probe that will drill five meters into the crust to measure heat flow from the planet’s interior; and (3) a radio science instrument to measure how Mars’ orientation changes as it orbits the sun. Insight’s robotic arm has successfully deployed the seismometer onto the Martian surface and will soon deploy the heat probe.

“Delivering the InSight spacecraft to a pre-selected landing site on Mars required my JPL team and the LM team to work tirelessly throughout the seven-month cruise,” Seubert said.

“Our Navigation Team was responsible for predicting the spacecraft trajectory and designing trajectory correction maneuvers to keep the spacecraft on target. This has been an international effort with many teams working together from all fields of expertise. A number of European partners, including France’s Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales, the German Aerospace Center, the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany, the Swiss Institute of Technology in Switzerland, Imperial College and Oxford University in the United Kingdom, and others, are supporting the InSight mission.”

The spacecraft entered the Martian atmosphere at 12,300 miles per hour, using a heat shield to protect the lander inside and a large parachute to slow itself down. After cutting away from the parachute and jettisoning the heat shield and backshell, the descent engines controlled InSight’s final touchdown. The nail-biting 6.5 minutes of the landing sequence was broadcast worldwide in real time. On Jan. 1, InSight celebrated the new year by testing the seismograph.

InSight will soon deploy a special cover over the instrument to protect it from Martian wind and extreme temperatures as it investigates processes that shaped the rocky planets of the inner solar system more than four billion years ago, revealing secrets within the Red Planet.

The AAS/AAIA 29th Space Flight Mechanics Conference had over 250 technical papers on innovative missions and discoveries. The meeting featured extraordinary technologies that will teach us more about our universe and ourselves through the dedication of these participants to “explore strange new worlds, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”