InSight Embarks on Its Mission to Dig Deep on Mars

Saturday's Mars InSight launch is the first from the West Coast to another planet

What to Know

  • The launch at Vandenberg Air Force Base was the first to another planet from the West Coast
  • InSight, loaded with tools to dig into the Martian surface, is scheduled to arrive Nov. 26 on Mars
  • For seismologists, the lander's tools offer the opportunity for "a new page of history"

NASA's InSight spacecraft began its mission early Saturday to unlock secrets under the surface of Mars when it soared over the Southern California coast in a historic launch -- the first from the West Coast to another planet. 

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InSight was carried aloft by an Atlas V rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base northwest of Santa Barbara. Residents as far north as Bakersfield and possible as far south as Rosarito, Mexico, were within viewing range of the pre-dawn launch The Atlas V rocket produced about 860,200 pounds of thrust when it climbed above the coast before turning toward Earth's south pole.

The rocket's first stage shut down about three minutes after liftoff, followed shortly by second-stage separation The powerful engine was then set to light up, carrying InSight into orbit about 13 minutes after the launch and 115 miles above Earth.

The $1 billion mission involves scientists from the U.S., France, Germany and elsewhere in Europe.

"I can’t describe to you in words how very excited I am... to go off to Mars," said project manager Tom Hoffman from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "It's going to be awesome."

NASA hasn't put a spacecraft down on Mars since the Curiosity rover in 2012. The U.S. is the only country to successfully land and operate a spacecraft at Mars.

Only about 40 percent of all missions to Mars from all countries — orbiters and landers alike — have proven successful over the decades.

The engines were to be re-ignited about an hour after launch, pointing InSight on its path to Mars. The spacecraft will be accompanied by two twin briefcase-size CubeSat satellites to provide a communications link. the CubeSats will break off after launch. 

The lander, packed with science instruments designed to dig deep into Mars, will likely arrive on Mars in late November. It will be begin a search for seismic activity, or Marsquakes, and monitor the flow of heat under the red planet in an effort to learn how Mars formed and unlock other mysteries.

"This mission will probe the interior of another terrestrial planet, giving us an idea of the size of the core, the mantle, the crust and our ability then to compare that with the Earth," said NASA’s chief scientist Jim Green. "This is of fundamental importance to understand the origin of our solar system and how it became the way it is today."

The lander is equipped with a seismometer for measuring marsquakes, a self-hammering probe for burrowing beneath the surface, and a radio system for tracking the spacecraft’s position and planet's wobbly rotation, thereby revealing the size and composition of Mars’ core.

"InSight, for seismologists, will really be a piece of history, a new page of history," said the Paris Institute of Earth Physics' Philippe Lognonne, lead scientist of the InSight seismometer.

InSight is scheduled to land on Mars on Nov. 26, unpack its science tools and get down to digging on Mars.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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