NASA’s latest mission to Mars will study the atmosphere and listen for phenomenons like ‘marsquakes.’
VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. — A first-of-its-kind launch from California scheduled for Saturday morning is set to send a car-sized probe to Mars on a two-year mission to examine what makes the Red Planet like Earth and help advance the search for new homes for our species.
Roaring into the predawn sky, the Mars InSight lander launch will be visible to millions of California residents near Los Angeles as it begins its approximately 200-day journey atop a two-stage Atlas V rocket. This is NASA’s first interplanetary launch from the West Coast, a decision made in large part because Vandenberg’s launch pads are less busy than the ones at Cape Canaveral’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The launch window opens about 4 a.m. Saturday local time and runs through June 8, giving mission control plenty of opportunities if the weather doesn’t cooperate or there are technical problems to be fixed.
InSight’s main mission is to check for quakes beneath Mars’ surface, which will help us learn how our solar system was created and lay the groundwork for similar exploration of potentially habitable planets elsewhere in the universe. Although Earth and Mars are generally formed of the same material, scientists want to know why the two planets ended up different. In addition to science experiments, the lander also carries two tiny silicon wafers engraved with the names of 2.4 million people who signed up via a public awareness campaign.
“We are go for launch,” Stu Spath, the InSight Program manager for manufacturer Lockheed Martin Space, said Thursday. “There’s nothing routine about going to Mars, especially landing on Mars. This is a tough mission, and we’re proud to be a part of it.”
The probe Friday sits on the base’s Launch Complex 3.
This is the second time NASA has tried to launch the probe; an instrument failure shortly before its originally scheduled Mach 2016 launch forced a postponement. After that “scrub,” scientists packed up the lander and stored it at the Colorado headquarters of the main builder, Lockheed Martin, until the planets again properly aligned to allow InSight to make the approximately 300 million-mile journey.
In January, Lockheed workers retested the lander in a clean room, deploying its solar panels and testing its robotic arm, to ensure it was ready for its second shot.
“Next time we’ll be operating it, it will be on Mars,” Scott Daniels, Lockheed’s assembly, test and launch operations manager, said in January as the solar panels unfurled for the last time before being folded up for the journey.
Even if the probe reaches Mars, there’s no guarantee of success. Mars missions have just a 40% success rate, NASA said. Federal taxpayers have provided about $813 million for the lander, with another $180 million from Germany and France.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is also funding an additional $18.5 million to test out two shoebox-sized “cubesats” that can act like cellphone towers, relaying information from the lander back to Earth. Those cubesats use inexpensive off-the-shelf technology and will help monitor the lander’s descent. If all goes well, this will be the first time cubesats have been used anywhere but in Earth orbit and could lay the groundwork for their use in other space exploration as humans expand their search of the stars.
By early 2019, scientists hope InSight’s instruments will be reporting back everything from how often the planet quakes to how warm the soil is, thanks to a probe designed to burrow nearly 20 feet below ground. That probe will be “picked” off the top of the lander by a robotic arm, the first time one has been used on another planet. Color cameras will photograph the area around the lander, which was built to withstand temperatures as low as minus-148 degrees below zero. Because Mars is geologically more stable than Earth, its interior may hold answers that have been erased here at home.
“Before there was a spacecraft, before there were scientic instruments, there were questions,” said Bruce Banerdt, InSight’s principal investigator. “This is the science of the early solar system, the science of how rocky planets form.”
InSight is based on the design of the Mars Phoenix lander, which landed on the Red Planet in 2008. Lockheed scientists said reusing parts of the design helps ensure reliability. The lander will hit the thin Martian atmosphere at about 13,200 mph, and then slow down through friction, a parachute, and then right before hitting the surface, with thrusters.