‘Seven min­utes of ter­ror’

New Mil­ford woman helps NASA land In­sight probe on Mars

The News-Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Ka­t­rina Ko­ert­ing

Kyle Cloutier held her breath last week as she watched the In­Sight probe’s de­scent to the sur­face of Mars — hurtling from about 12,000 miles per hour 75 miles above the planet to 5 miles an hour as it touched down.

“It’s called the seven min­utes of ter­ror for a rea­son,” said Cloutier, 26, of New Mil­ford. “When you hear the words ‘touch­down’ you breathe a sigh of re­lief and cry tears of joy.”

In­Sight is the first probe that will ex­plore the in­te­rior of the red planet to help sci­en­tists learn more about how rocky plan­ets are formed. “It’s re­ally ex­cit­ing,” Cloutier said.

As a plan­ning and se­quenc­ing engi­neer with the Jet Propul­sion Lab­o­ra­tory in Pasadena, Calif., she is re­spon­si­ble for de­vel­op­ing, build­ing and test­ing the com­mands that are sent to the space­craft.

Since the his­toric land­ing on Nov. 26, she and her col­leagues have sent daily pro­grams up to the lan­der to com­plete tasks, in­clud­ing tak­ing pic­tures, set­ting up in­stru­ments and un­furl­ing the so­lar ar­rays.

She will dis­cuss the In­Sight pro­ject and Mars at the Sec­ond Satur­day pro­gram this week­end at the John J. McCarthy Ob­ser­va­tory, just be­hind New Mil­ford High School. The pro­gram runs from 7 to 9 p.m. on Satur­day. Cloutier cred­its her time at the ob­ser­va­tory for her in­ter­est in space and her ca­reer.

In­Sight is the first in­ter­plan­e­tary mis­sion to launch from the West Coast. The mis­sion in­cluded two brief­case-sized space­craft, called CubeSats, that had ex­per­i­men­tal ra­dios and an­ten­nas, pro­vid­ing an al­ter­nate way for en­gi­neers to mon­i­tor the land­ing. This is the far­thest these types of crafts have trav­eled.

Most noteworthy though, are the SEIS seis­mome­ter that lis­tens to the pulse of Mars, the heat flow probe to get its tem­per­a­ture and two ra­dio an­ten­nas to track how the planet wob­bles as it ro­tates on its axis.

“You’re es­sen­tially tak­ing the vi­tal signs of the planet,” Cloutier said, not­ing this will of­fer an idea about the for­ma­tion of rocky plan­ets, in­clud­ing Earth and other ex­o­plan­ets. “That’s an ex­cit­ing pos­si­bil­ity.”

It’s a feat to land on Mars. This was only the eighth suc­cess­ful land­ing, af­ter 10 crashes.

Dur­ing the land­ing, Fer­nando Abilleira, a nav­i­ga­tor with JPL, said the task was akin to “shoot­ing a bas­ket­ball from the Sta­ples Cen­ter in down­town L.A. and hit­ting noth­ing but net in a bas­ket­ball hoop in New York City and it’s mov­ing at a speed of two feet per sec­ond and spin­ning about its axis.”

Lead­ing up to the land­ing, Cloutier and her col­leagues took turns at work to en­sure some­one was there at all time.

“Un­for­tu­nately, a space­craft never sleeps,” she said. “Some­thing can go wrong at any point so some­one is al­ways on.”

In the week af­ter, they mod­i­fied their sched­ule, mostly work­ing nights as the data was sent back from In­Sight, get­ting about an hour later each day be­cause a Mars sol is about 40 min­utes longer than an Earth day.

Since the land­ing, Cloutier said the craft has shown them some sur­prises. Mars was dustier than ex­pected but she said the grav­ity and wind will re­move the dust from the cam­eras soon. They were sur­prised to see so many rocks in the dis­tance of the land­ing site.

Cloutier joined the In­Sight team in Septem­ber 2017, just as her last pro­ject, Cassini, ended with a fiery swan dive into Saturn. The Cassini space­craft had spent years cap­tur­ing im­ages and help­ing re­searchers study Saturn and its moons.

Though Saturn has cap­ti­vated Cloutier, she said it was nice to re­turn to Mars. She started work­ing on the Mars rover Op­por­tu­nity in 2014 as an in­tern while study­ing aerospace en­gi­neer­ing at the Univer­sity of Mary­land, which then turned into a full-time job.

Her fa­ther, Bill Cloutier, watched the In­sight land­ing on the big screen at work, pro­vid­ing some com­men­tary to his co-work­ers about the steps taken to get to that point. He said it’s al­ways ex­cit­ing to watch a land­ing on an­other planet, but he had more of a con­nec­tion to this one be­yond his pas­sion for space ex­plo­ration.

“Hav­ing some­one in the control room is spe­cial,” he said.

Bill Cloutier has been fol­low­ing this mis­sion as close as he can, chat­ting about it with his daugh­ter. He even went to Cal­i­for­nia for the launch in May, stand­ing in an ar­ti­choke field at 4 a.m. just as the sea fog rolled in block­ing his view.

“We didn’t see any­thing, but we cer­tainly felt it,” he said, adding the launch was so loud it set off car alarms.

Kyle Cloutier will be with In­Sight un­til about March and then she’ll move on to a new pro­ject.

“There’s al­ways new and ex­cit­ing mis­sions at JPL,” she said.


NASA / Bill In­galls / Con­trib­uted Photo

Mars In­Sight team mem­bers, in­clud­ing Kyle Cloutier of New Mil­ford, left, cen­ter fore­ground, mon­i­tor the lan­der prior to it touch­ing down on Mars last week from NASA’s Jet Propul­sion Lab­o­ra­tory in Pasadena, Calif.

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