National News

NASA’s InSight Launches for Six-Month Journey to Mars

Posted May 5, 2018 8:06 a.m. EDT

Propelled by a predawn rocket launch from California, NASA’s InSight spacecraft is now on a voyage of some six months to Mars to study the deep interior of the red planet.

“The science that we want to do with this mission, the reason we’re going to Mars, is really the science of understanding the early solar system,” said Bruce Banerdt, the principal investigator in a pre-launch briefing on Thursday. “How planets form, how rocky planets form.”

It could also provide insights to planets around distant stars and how likely those possess climates and conditions that would be habitable to life.

An Atlas 5 rocket carrying InSight lifted off at 7:05 a.m. ET from a foggy Vandenberg Air Force Base lighting up the skies as it headed upward on a southward arc, visible to early risers in Los Angeles and San Diego.

After a journey of 300 million miles, InSight — the name is a shortening of Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport — will head for the surface of Mars on Nov. 26. If all goes well, a heat shield, parachutes and a rocket engine will slow InSight to a safe landing in a flat plain just north of the Martian equator known as Elysium Planitia.

The main mission of InSight is essentially to take a sonogram of Mars. Just as sound waves can reveal the outlines of a baby within a mother, the seismic rumblings of quakes on Mars will reveal the planet’s interior structure — the size of the core, the thickness of the crust, the properties of the mantle.

If the scientists are lucky, the seismic waves could reveal underground aquifers — places where life could plausibly persist today.

The lander also carries a probe that will burrow 16 feet into the ground in order to measure the amount of heat flowing upward, providing additional data about the innards of Mars.

Another experiment will precisely measure the distance from Earth to the spacecraft, which will track how Mars wobbles as it spins. The size and period of the wobbles will indicate the size of the liquid core inside Mars.

The launch is the first voyage between planets that NASA has conducted from the Vandenberg site. The agency selected the range in California because it was less congested, allowing for more possibilities for launch attempts should they have been needed.

Florida’s Cape Canaveral air base is usually the preferred site for robotic probes headed to other planets because an eastward launch path takes advantage of the rotation of the Earth. That gives a rocket an added boost of velocity to escape Earth’s gravity. However, the Atlas 5 rocket carrying InSight was more than powerful enough to send the spacecraft on its way.