One scientist’s 30-year quest to get under Mars’ skin

French Principal Investigator SEIS experiment on NASA InSight Mission, Philippe Lognonne, during a photo session on April 27, 2018 at the Institut de Physique du Globe (Institute of Earth Physics) at the University Paris Diderot in Paris. (AFP / STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN)
Updated 06 May 2018
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One scientist’s 30-year quest to get under Mars’ skin

  • Philippe Lognonne has explored the dynamics of tsunamis and deciphered data from 1970s Apollo missions
  • The SEIS seismometer that will leave Earth on Saturday measures ground motions in a wide range of frequencies, using an array of six sensors.

PARIS: Philippe Lognonne has waited three decades to hear the heartbeat of Mars.
With a little luck and some help from NASA, the instrument he designed to take the Red Planet’s pulse will land before the year’s end and press a high-tech ear to its dusty surface.
As principal investigator for the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS), a multi-sensor seismometer, Lognonne will have a front-row seat for the scheduled launch on Saturday from Vandenberg Air Force Base in central California of NASA’s InSight mission.
But he’s keeping the champagne corked: three times in the past, Mars space missions featuring his ultra-sensitive seismometers have faltered, failed or been scrapped.
Lognonne’s cherubic features are framed by a mop of shoulder-length auburn hair, a grizzled beard and white sideburns.
He has just turned 55, and has a weakness for Hawaiian shirts.
A researcher at the Institute of Earth Physics in Paris, Lognonne has explored the dynamics of tsunamis and deciphered data from 1970s Apollo missions.
But from the start, his true passion and unwavering mission was to build the tools that could detect what’s going on under Mars’ red surface.
“This planet was habitable four billion years ago, and I want to understand why, bit by bit, it stopped being so,” Lognonne said in an interview at the Paris university where he teaches.
Soon after completing his PhD in 1989, the young scientist focused on designing a suite of seismometers — used on Earth to detect and measure earthquakes — that could probe deep beneath the Martian surface in search of answers.
His first crack at securing passage to Mars for his instruments came in 1996, when France’s National Center for Space Studies joined a Russian mission that included an orbiter and two landers.
But two small seismometers on board never made it past Earth’s atmosphere — the launch failed, and the mission was aborted.
Lognonne got another shot at his goal seven years later.
Working with US engineer Bruce Banerdt — who 15 years later would become the scientific director for InSight — he helped prepare instruments for the European NetLander mission, which sought to set up a network of four small stations on the surface of Mars, including a seismometer. A launch date was set for 2005.
But the mission got mired in red ink and was axed in 2003.
“That was a bit of let-down,” Lognonne said flatly.
What kept him going? Why didn’t he give up at that point?
“I’ve always told my students, if you really believe that a project is scientifically important, the only reason to not carry on is if someone else is already doing it,” he said.
Banerdt and Lognonne went their separate ways but stayed in touch, linked in part by the dream of putting a seismometer on Mars.
“We knew that the scientific consensus was that it must be done,” Lognonne said.
In 2012, NASA invited bids under its Discovery program for relatively low-budget space exploration projects, and the duo decided to try once again.
They were up against 26 other projects in their category.
In August of that year, they got the call from NASA saying they had been selected for a 2016 Mars launch.
“Four years is very short!” Lognonne recalls thinking, as they threw themselves into the task.
The SEIS seismometer that will — with any luck at all — leave Earth on Saturday measures ground motions in a wide range of frequencies, using an array of six sensors.
It will detect and record “marsquakes” and other sources of ground motion, such as meteorite impacts and the faint gravitational effects of Phobos, a Martian moon.
The sensors are in a temperature-controlled and vacuum-sealed box housed within a domed, three-legged pod that resembles an autonomous vacuum cleaner.
The ensemble — protected by a wind and thermal shield — is to be placed on Martian soil by a robot arm, and is connected to the lander by a flexible tether with power and data lines.
But three months before the scheduled launch in early 2016, the French team detected a tiny leak in the tether.
NASA canned the launch. “That was a shock,” said Lognonne.
But this time the cancelation was not final. The mission was rescheduled for May to June 2018, the next window of opportunity for a Mars launch.
 


Saudi team develops payload for use in joint lunar exploration with Chinese Space Agency

Engineers and researchers at the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology display the payload they have developed after months of painstaking research and testing. (SPA)
Updated 21 May 2018
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Saudi team develops payload for use in joint lunar exploration with Chinese Space Agency

  • The joint exploration is in line with a memorandum of understanding concluded between China and Saudi Arabia during King Salman's visit to Beijing in mid-March 2017,
  • Under the agreement, the Saudi side will build a payload for a space censoring system for use in filming and take photos of the moon.

JEDDAH: Saudi engineers and researchers have completed work on a payload for a Chinese space vehicle that will explore the moon, the Saudi Press Agency reported on Monday.
The joint exploration is in line with a memorandum of understanding concluded between China and Saudi Arabia during King Salman's visit to Beijing in mid-March 2017, the SPA said, quoting Prince Turki bin Saud bin Mohammed, president of King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST).
The joint venture intends to study and explore the moon, "particularly the invisible side of it to provide scientific data for researchers and specialist in space research and science."
As agreed upon by the KACST and the Chinese Space Agency, the Saudi side will build a payload for a space sensory system for use in filming and take photos of the moon.
"The payload was readied in a record time of no more than 12 months during which the Saudi research team faced numerous challenges, most prominent of which was the importance of manufacturing a compact payload with a high capacity of less than 10.5 cu.cm and a weight of no more than 630 grams on the Chinese satellite," the KACST head said.
The payload consists of photographic and data processing units, among others, that is not only light in weight but also able to endure the space environment.
The equipment is capable of taking photos from different angles and altitudes that varies according to the lunar orbit changes, Prince Turki was quoted by the SPA as saying.
"Saudi Arabia's taking part in this great event would boost, no doubt, its efforts to develop its satellite technologies and use it in several fields of reconnaissance and distance censoring as well as space telecommunications, in addition to proceeding with the march of catching the world race in this field," he said.