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NASA's InSight spacecraft is about to blast off for Mars

05 May 2018
NASA's InSight spacecraft is about to blast off for Mars

It will be the first NASA mission launched to another planet from the West Coast, and it'll be visible to millions in Southern California from Santa Maria to San Diego. Those CubeSats will make the somewhat shorter journey to lunar orbit, but they'll be doing real scientific observing when they get there. It nearly became the GEMS mission, but Dr. Sue Smrekar, InSight's principal investigator, says another NASA mission grabbed GEMS so she came up with InSight. Banerdt jokingly calls it "the biggest parking lot on Mars". Sophisticated geophysical instruments will be measuring the red planet's metrics. Mars is smaller and cooler, and its convection is slowed or stopped. This new probe is meant to explore the deep interior of Mars.

Smrekar has been chasing the idea for more than two decades, after she decided one morning in the shower that she wanted to build planetary heat probes.

Previous Mars missions have focused on surface or close-to-the-surface rocks and mineral. Phoenix, for instance, dug just several inches down for samples. "That kind of went into the file drawer for a while".

Studying how the seismic waves move through the crust, mantle, and core of the Red Planet could help us learn more about how the different layers are made up and how thick they are. He meets EVE, a futuristic robot deployed to Earth to search for any signs of life and habitability.

During a pre-launch briefing, First Lieutenant Kristina Williams of the 30th Space Wing, the Weather Officer for the launch, reckoned that there was an 80 per cent chance that the launch would be shrouded in fog, which would be disappointing for viewers but not a constraint for getting the rocket off the ground.

"Where we land is an intentionally boring place", said Neil Bowles, a planetary scientist at Oxford University, and one of a number of United Kingdom researchers involved in the mission. However, it would be expected to land on Mars on 26 November.

By tracking the spacecraft's steady location as the planet spins, he and his colleagues can pinpoint the precise location of the invisible axis the planet is spinning around.

"Going forward, this will translate to allowing us to go places and do measurements that we haven't been able to make before", he says. "That wobble is connected to how the core is sloshing around inside the planet".

The launch is set for 4:05 a.m. PDT Saturday from Vandenberg Air Force Base in central California aboard an Atlas V rocket, with a two-hour daily launch window.

InSight isn't the only mission launching this month; JPL's GRACE-FO satellite is scheduled to take off on May 19 and will pick up from the 15-year GRACE mission to continue monitoring how melting polar ice caps are contributing to rising sea levels.