We typically think of Cape Canaveral in Florida as the jumping off point for NASA deep space missions, but that will change on May 5 when the first interplanetary mission to launch from the US Pacific coast lifts off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. On May 5 at 4:05 PDT (11:05 GMT), the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission is scheduled to lift off atop a 189-ft-tall (57.3-m) United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on its first leg to the Elysium Planitia region of Mars to conduct studies of the planet's structure.
Normally, US deep space missions lift off from Cape Canaveral because the Florida peninsula not only gives the launch booster a bit of a kick from the Earth's rotation, but it also allows the spacecraft to travel in an easterly direction over open water. This means that the spacecraft themselves can be heavier as it doesn't take as much fuel to place them in the proper orbit.
Vandenberg, on the other hand, isn't as well known as Canaveral because it's used mainly for classified military launches. It's situated north of Canaveral, so it doesn't provide as much rotational energy, so either the payloads must be lighter or the rockets bigger. In addition, being on the west coast, it can't send rockets to the east because these are populated land areas. Instead, Vandenberg has the advantage of being better suited to sending payloads into polar orbits, which are ideal for surveillance satellites designed to keep watch on every point in the globe.
Weighing in at only 794 lb (360 kg), the unmanned InSight lander plus the mass of its protective spacecraft are relatively lightweight, so the Vandenberg penalty isn't that severe. Therefore, the mission can use the two-stage Atlas V 401 rocket, which cranks 860,200 lb of thrust on lift off.
According to NASA, the Atlas will reach Mach 1 (740 mph, 1,192 km/h) at one minute and 18 seconds into the flight, and the first stage will shut down at the three-minute-54-second-mark when it is at an altitude of 66 mi (106 km) and 184 mi (296 km) downrange, with second stage separation occurring six seconds later. The Centaur second stage will then push the spacecraft into a 115-mi (185 km) parking orbit flying over the south and north poles, where it will remain for up to 66 minutes before the final one-hour engine burn that will send InSight on its way to its landing site on the Red Planet on November 26 at about noon PST (20:00 GMT).
If the launch is delayed, the May 5 window remains open for two hours and there will be additional daily launch windows until June 8. Whenever it launches, the arrival time at Mars will remain the same.
One benefit of the Vandenberg early morning launch is that, weather permitting, it will provide the public with a free fireworks show. People on the coast from Bakersfield, California to Rosarito, Mexico may have a chance to see the rocket as it flies south along the edge of the continent.
"After lift-off from Vandenberg's Space Launch Complex 3, the Atlas V begins a southerly trajectory and climbs out over the Channel Islands off Oxnard," says Tim Dunn, launch director for the Launch Services Program. "If you live on the California Central Coast or south to L.A. and San Diego, be sure to get up early on May 5th, because Atlas V is the gold standard in launch vehicles and it can put on a great show."
"If you live in Southern California and the weather is right, you'll probably have a better view of the launch than I will," says Tom Hoffman, project manager for NASA's InSight mission from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "I'll be stuck inside a control room looking at monitors – which is not the best way to enjoy an Atlas 5 on its way to Mars."
The video below is an animated preview of the InSight mission launch.
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