InSight is scheduled to launch May 5 at 7:05 a.m. ET Watch the event in the stream above.
Before sunrise on Saturday morning, a NASA rocket is scheduled to lift off from a California launchpad with an interplanetary spacecraft aboard and set forth on a six-month journey to Mars to study the guts of the Red Planet.
InSight, which stands for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, will be the first lander or rover bound for Mars since Curiosity launched in 2011. It will also be the first to dig deep into the planet’s interior in an effort to understand how the planet’s geology evolved over billions of years. The probe will scan for seismic activity, keeping tabs on the planet’s so-called “marsquakes.”
The event is also historic for California. Strapped into the Atlas V rocket, InSight will take off from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base, marking the first time the West Coast will witness an interplanetary spacecraft launch. Much of Los Angeles and surrounding counties can view the takeoff from their own backyards (given clear skies) and at these locations, recommended by NASA.
Why send InSight?
All of the Mars flybys, orbiters and rovers have beamed back a wealth of information, but so far, the robots have worked only at the surface level: sifting through dirt, blasting apart rocks, looking down canyons and hiking up mountains.
The Viking landers, for example, launched in 1975 to study seismology on Mars and look for evidence of “marsquakes.” These probes revealed that Mars isn’t as geologically active as Earth, but it’s still churning underground and releasing heat. But those quake-measuring tools sat atop the robot rather than digging under the Mars ground.
NASA scientists equipped InSight with an instrument called SEIS, a dome with a “seismometer” inside. Bruce Banerdt, InSight’s principal investigator,t described this instrument as a planetary CT scanner looking for the frequency, size and speed of marsquakes.
Two additional experiments will probe Mars’ interior to describe Martian geological history. The HP3 probe will drill 16 feet through the crust, send cable sensors down and take temperature readings to see how much heat is leaving the planet. The RISE sensor will track InSight’s location, ascertaining how much the planet’s North Pole wobbles as it orbits the sun. This latter experiment could determine the size of Mars’s iron-rich core and if other elements exist inside. All three experiments will take a Martian year — two Earth years — to complete.
Banerdt said in a statement that scientists struggle to understand Earth’s geological history because plate tectonics constantly drift, revealing various surface ages. If InSight can gather details on Mars’ geological history, it could help us understand Earth’s evolution too.
InSight was a long time in the making
InSight was on track to launch in March 2016, but as the engineers crept closer to the deadline, they discovered leaks in the SEIS system. The crack was miniscule–maybe a few nanometers across–on the system’s nine-inch chamber.
But that “insignificant” crack prevented the chamber from holding its vacuum seal around the sensors inside. When working properly, those sensors can pick up Mars’ subtle, subsurface tremors–some as small as the width of an atom. If the seal breaks, the sensors won’t work and the equipment could get destroyed by the harsh, Martian environment, such as the extreme temperature that ranges from 80 degrees Fahrenheit to -200 degrees Fahrenheit.
The InSight team then had to tack on $150 million to the mission’s $675 million budget to seal the leak.
InSight isn’t traveling alone
The Atlas V rocket will also loft the twin mini spacecrafts called Mars Cube One, or MarCO.
MarCO-A and MarCO-B, which the engineering team calls them “Wall-E” and “Eva”, will be NASA’s first deep-space CubeSats, which are inexpensive, bite-sized satellites.
Wall-E and Eva are the size of briefcases and will follow InSight on their own paths to Mars.
If these compact spacefarers make it to Mars, they will relay deep-space communications back to Earth as InSight enters Martian airspace. If these CubeSats prove successful overall, they may become the “go-to” communication method to use for future missions, NASA announced last year.
Why NASA tends to avoid West Coast launches
Fun fact: NASA tends to launch on the East Coast, at Cape Canaveral in Florida, because Earth’s eastward rotation provides launch vehicles an extra oomph or a momentum boost. The launches must also send the rockets over water for safety reasons.
Going against the Earth’s rotation, especially with a heavy spacecraft on board, requires a rocket to rely more on its engine. Since InSight is 20 feet long and under 1,600 pounds, Atlas V can easily pump it toward space without that momentum.
If any delays occur, the InSight team has set a launch window from May 5 through June 8, which will get the lander to Mars on Nov. 26, 2018.