The US West Coast got a bit of space spectacle today as NASA's historic InSight mission to Mars lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. At 4:05 am PDT (11:05 GMT) the mission to explore the deep interior of the Red Planet successfully launched atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on the first leg of its 301 million mi (485 million km) journey, which will place an instrument-packed lander on the Martian surface to spend two years probing the mysteries of the planet's structure and dynamics.
Today's launch took place under partly cloudy skies, as the Atlas V-401 rose from Launch Complex 3 to become the first interplanetary mission ever to launch from the US Pacific coast. It went into a polar trajectory, heading south along the coast of South America. As it passed over the South Pole to head north again before going on to Mars, it was tracked by NASA's Deep Space Network station in Canberra in Australia assisted by the European Space Agency's tracking station at New Norcia.
According to NASA, this unusual orbit was made possible by the relatively light weight of the InSight spacecraft to the capacity of the Atlas rocket. In addition, the polar angle allowed for more launch windows over a five-week period. At 93 minutes into the flight, the unmanned spacecraft separated from the Centaur upper stage and is now on an interplanetary trajectory that will take six and a half month to reach Mars.
Originally scheduled to fly in 2016, the US$813.8 million Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission was delayed due to a fault in one of the lander's instrument packages. The 1,530-lb (694-kg) spacecraft presently consists of a cruise stage, a lander, and an aeroshell to protect the lander during its hypersonic passage through the thin Marian atmosphere.
One point that NASA likes to emphasize about InSight is that it is a mission of firsts. Not only is it the first deep space mission to launch from the West Coast, it is also the first Mars mission to carry a seismograph to detect marsquakes, will be the first lander to use a self-hammering mole to drill to a depth of 10 to 16 ft (3 to 5 m), and will be the first to use a magnetometer on the Martian surface – all in the service of its mission as the first probe to study the deep interior of Mars.
In addition, today's launch also carried the two MarCO spacecraft, which will flyby Mars during InSight's landing. These are the first CubeSats ever sent into deep space. They are technology demonstrators designed to show that spacecraft no larger than two loaves of bread can operate over interstellar distances and communicate with Earth. Though they will conduct an experimental data relay from InSight during landing, MarCO-A and MarCO-B have no science or support functions.
Now on its way to Mars, InSight will carry out a series of system checks and calibration tests in anticipation of its rendezvous. It's scheduled to land on Mars at about noon PST (20:00 GMT) on November 26, 2018 – about midwinter in the Martian northern hemisphere. The landing location is Elysium Planitia and In SIght is expected to study the deep geology of Mars until Nov. 24, 2020 when its primary mission ends.
The video below is a replay of the live launch broadcast.
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