2018-05-05 06:23:02
Watch NASA’s InSight Spacecraft Launch for Mars

06:23, May 05 970 0

On Saturday, NASA is planning to extend its explorations of Mars with the launch of a robotic lander named InSight, short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport.

Unlike earlier missions that focused on what is at the surface, InSight will instead peer deep inside the red planet. The information it gathers will allow planetary scientists to compare Mars and Earth and better understand 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.

The Atlas 5 rocket carrying the InSight spacecraft is scheduled to lift off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on May 5 at 7:05 a.m. Eastern Time.

Weather is not expected to be favorable, with an 80 percent chance that fog will reduce visibility below what is usually allowed. But First Lt. Kristina Williams, the Air Force weather officer, said during a pre-launch briefing on Thursday that the officials overseeing the range could choose to overrule that particular constraint, allowing the launch to go forward.

NASA TV is to broadcast coverage of the launch beginning at 6:30 a.m. A video player will be embedded here shortly before the launch begins.

If the launch is delayed, NASA has up to five weeks to get InSight off the ground before Mars and Earth move too far out of alignment for a trip to be made to the red planet this year.

This is the first time that NASA has launched one of its robotic planetary missions from California instead of Florida.

Vandenberg is about 130 miles northwest of Los Angeles. If the skies are clear, the launch would be visible to about 10 million Californians, from Santa Maria to San Diego.

Most, however, will probably be asleep.

If you do wake up that early (4 a.m. West Coast time), check the InSight website to make sure the launch is still on schedule. Then go outside and look at the western sky.

Florida’s Cape Canaveral air base is usually the preferred site for spacecraft 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.

But the Atlas 5 rocket is more than powerful enough to send InSight on its way. And using the less-congested Vandenberg range would allow NASA for more launch attempts if needed.

At Vandenberg, rockets launch toward the south, over the Pacific. If anything goes wrong, no one wants chunks of metal and toxic rocket fuel falling on populated areas to the east of the range.

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.

“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. “How planets form, how rocky planets form.”

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.

No matter if Mars InSight launches on May 5 or five weeks later on June 8, the arrival date remains the same: Nov. 26 at about 3 p.m. Eastern Time.

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A few minutes after entering Mars’s atmosphere, the spacecraft will slow down from 14,000 miles per hour to a complete stop on the planet’s surface — hopefully in one piece.

The landing spot is Elysium Planitia, a flat plain just north of the Equator.

It will then take several months to deploy its instruments. Its primary mission of measuring marsquakes and heat flow from the interior is to last two years, although NASA spacecraft have often lasted years longer than designed.