Help Shape the Future of Space Exploration

Join The Planetary Society Now  arrow.png

Join our eNewsletter for updates & action alerts

    Please leave this field empty
Blogs
Facebook Twitter Email RSS AddThis

Headshot of Emily Lakdawalla

Four mission assembly progress reports: ExoMars TGO, InSight, OSIRIS-REx, and BepiColombo

Posted By Emily Lakdawalla

28-05-2015 6:12 CDT

Topics: InSight, mission status, OSIRIS-REx, spacecraft, BepiColombo, ExoMars TGO

2015 has seen few deep-spacecraft launches, but 2016 is shaping up to be a banner year with three launches, followed quickly by a fourth in early 2017. You can see the list in Olaf Frohn's always-excellent "what's up in the solar system" diagram. ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter and its passenger, the Schiaparelli landing demonstrator, is working toward a January launch: InSight will go in March; OSIRIS-REx in September; and BepiColombo's triple spacecraft in January. All told, there are eight or nine spacecraft launching with these four missions. (I wasn't sure whether to count OSIRIS-REx's sample return capsule as a distinct spacecraft, thus my uncertainty about eight or nine.)

What's Up in the Solar System diagram by Olaf Frohn (updated for June 2016)

Olaf Frohn

What's Up in the Solar System diagram by Olaf Frohn (updated for June 2016)
A diagram, updated once a month, of active space missions traveling beyond Earth orbit. Contains links to past diagrams.

It's always cool to see spacecraft baby pictures -- photos of the machines undergoing assembly. They are among the most advanced technology that humans produce; and yet each one is hand-crafted and unique. This is small-batch artisan high technology. We've been treated to many such baby pictures in the last few weeks.

Here are ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and Schiaparelli, meeting each other for the first time. The space engineering community uses the term "mating" for this event but since no offspring will be produced, I don't think it's entirely appropriate! How about "attachment" or "connection" or "union" or "joining?" You can see more photos of their union at ESA's website, and there's a video here. A more recent photo shows ExoMars TGO and Schiaparelli undergoing vibration testing. Meanwhile, they've prepared the clean room that will be used to assemble the ExoMars rover; Jonathan Amos has a story on that at the BBC. Of course, there are worries about what the recent Proton crash means for ExoMars' launch; Paul Suthers has a story on that.

Schiaparelli lander meets ExoMars orbiter

ESA / B. Bethge

Schiaparelli lander meets ExoMars orbiter
Schiaparelli, also known as the ExoMars Entry, descent and landing Demonstrator Module (EDM), suspended above the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) on an overhead crane in the Cannes facility of Thales Alenia Space (France) on April 11 2015, in preparation for their attachment.

Next to launch is InSight. Today, Lockheed Martin announced completion of InSight's assembly, and JPL announced the beginning of environmental testing. This is a pretty dramatic milestone: congratulations to the whole InSight team! There is still a great deal of testing to be done before the spacecraft gets shipped to Vandenberg Air Force Base for its launch. But it's a beautiful thing to see a spacecraft fully assembled.

InSight assembled

NASA / Lockheed Martin

InSight assembled
In this photo taken April 30, 2015, Lockheed Martin engineers and technicians test the deployment of the InSight lander’s solar arrays. This configuration is how the spacecraft will look on the surface of Mars.

There are lots more photos at the JPL story. I especially like the one of engineers building InSight's diminutive heat shield; it looks like they're building a sand castle on top of a beehive. (Quick, somebody make that scenario into an app.) Also, I enjoy this photo of InSight's disk-gap-band parachute being tested in the same facility that tested Curiosity's comparatively gigantic parachute of similar design.

Building InSight's heat shield

NASA / JPL / Lockheed Martin

Building InSight's heat shield
In this February 2015 scene from a clean room at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, specialists are building the heat shield to protect NASA's InSight spacecraft when it is speeding through the Martian atmosphere.

Next up is OSIRIS-REx. We've been watching that mission's development on this site through Dante Lauretta's guest blogs, but I don't want it to be left out of this photo roundup, so here's one of the images from his most recent post, which is as much about the people who build these spacecraft as it is about the spacecraft itself:

OSIRIS-REx SRC team

Lockheed Martin

OSIRIS-REx SRC team
A dedicated team at Lockheed Martin continues to make great progress in building the Sample Return Capsule (SRC).

Finally, there's BepiColombo, which was originally planned to launch in 2016 but which is now looking at a January 2017 launch. Despite its dual name, BepiColombo actually consists of three spacecraft: ESA's Mercury Planetary Orbiter, JAXA's Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter, and an ESA-built Mercury Transfer Module, charged with delivering the science craft to their target. The big announcement yesterday was that the Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter has been delivered to the assembly facility; it's shown here with the "protoflight model" of the Mercury Transfer Module. It's very shiny! Mercury spacecraft have to be mirror-covered to minimize the heat they absorb from the nearby Sun.

Unpacking the Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter

ESA / Anneke Le Floc'h

Unpacking the Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter
The flight model of the BepiColombo Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO), which arrived at ESA's European Space Research and Technology Centre, The Netherlands, in April 2015. The MMO has been lifted off of the base of its transport container and is ready to be mounted on its integration stand. The MMO integration adapter (on the yellow stand) can be seen in the background. The large disc on top of the spacecraft is the high-gain antenna, which will be used to transmit data back to Earth. The protoflight model of the Mercury Transfer Module (MTM) is visible on the right. MTM will provide solar-electric propulsion for the spacecraft stack during the journey to Mercury.

It's very exciting to see BepiColombo come together, and not just because we desperately need new spacecraft sent toward the inner solar system now that MESSENGER is no more. I'm thrilled to see the success of this partnership between JAXA and ESA. ESA has the success with deep-space missions that has been somewhat elusive to JAXA, while JAXA has unmatched creativity in spacecraft design. We've seen what a success interagency cooperation can be, with Cassini-Huygens; but such cooperation has been rocky recently, with NASA unceremoniously withdrawing from partnerships with ESA on ExoMars and the originally planned joint Jupiter mission. I have high hopes for the cooperation between ESA and JAXA on BepiColombo -- I hope that the mission will demonstrate that such cooperation multiplies the value of each agency's individual contribution to the mission.

A postscript: I had an interesting diversion yesterday, trying to understand what the words "protoflight model" meant -- ESA uses the phrase to name the Mercury Transfer Module. It's clearly a portmanteau of "prototype" and "flight", and it turns out that that's exactly what the word means. To ESA "protoflight" models can be both one-of-a-kind high-fidelity prototypes and also the actual flight article that will be launched into space. It's a word that's not used on NASA missions, as far as I understand things. NASA missions have "flight" hardware, which goes to space, and "engineering models," which remain on Earth. Most NASA engineering models that I have seen are essentially flight-qualified spacecraft, but the engineering models are the spacecraft that get put through the more severe environmental testing. To make things more confusing, ESA also uses the phrase "engineering model," but to ESA, an engineering model is not a flight article; it's a thing that you use on Earth for testing. Which is what NASA calls a "testbed." I thought space-related acronyms were confusing; but different usage of the same phrases within different space communities is even more confusing!

 
See other posts from May 2015

 

Read more blog entries about: InSight, mission status, OSIRIS-REx, spacecraft, BepiColombo, ExoMars TGO

Comments:

MichaelAye : 05/28/2015 11:03 CDT

In my experience even at JPL an engineering model would go through 'some' extensive environmental testing but can not be used for representative tests of the whole system because engineering models are usually reduced in functionality. What goes through full environmental testing would usually be called qualification model or QM in mission speak. But these terms certainly can differ from mission to mission even inside the same space agency. At ESA, a protoflight model (PFM) approach is usually chosen when there's not enough time nor money to do the full chain of having an extremely tested QM and then a carefully tested FM. A PFM will be tested less harsh than a QM to retain lifetime for the mission, but more rigorous than a FM. The philosophy is that a FM needs less testing because it's an exact copy of a QM and the QM was tested immensely. But a PFM had no QM upfront, that's why it's being tested more. Hopefully that explains a bit?

Arbitrary: 05/28/2015 01:40 CDT

Emely normally doesn't write about future missions, but here comes her whole calendar about it! At every opposition with Mars, probes will be sent there from now on. Every time, once every 15/7 year, for all time to come. That's what the beginnings of a space faring society does.

ethanol : 05/28/2015 06:16 CDT

Emily, in the unlikely event that you ever find yourself without a topic to post on, I would love to hear more about the creative design of Japanese spacecraft. Thanks!

masanori: 05/29/2015 04:24 CDT

This is an off-topic, Maybe. Like Emily, I look forward to the success of ESA/JAXA collaboration on BepiColombo & further but perhaps the reason is different. I don't write it here because it's too off-topic, But when supporting BepiColombo mission, I cannot think about it without thinking about Akatsuki. This is something almost all the people else is not thinking about. I want to "watch" the success of MMO's orbit insertion with full of pleasure. But to me, this requires Akatsuki to become my country's first spacecraft to successfully enter the orbit of off-Earth planet with huge gravity. Or "My country's first off-Earth planet orbiter successfully entered the orbit by other space agency's operation"??? I don't want to watch it with such feeling. The warranty of Akatsuki was already expired. But, surviving unplanned heat from The Sun, it seems Akatsuki is still in good shape. By careful operation by the mission team through the years. Also I have seen the team's efforts on connecting/informing to the public, which JAXA HQ has never emphasised. So I believe Akatsuki and the team should be the first one. In so many reasons. Go Akatsuki!!

Leave a Comment:

You must be logged in to submit a comment. Log in now.

Space in Images

Pretty pictures and
awe-inspiring science.

See More

Join the New Millennium Committee

Let’s invent the future together!

Become a Member

Connect With Us

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and more…
Continue the conversation with our online community!