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InSight on its Way to Mars

InSight on its Way to Mars

NASA’s InSight spacecraft successfully lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA on time this morning at 7:05 am ET (4:05 am Pacific) despite a foggy forecast.  InSight will land at Elysium Planitia on Mars on November 26, 2018.

The Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission is to study the interior structure of Mars to measure the “planet’s ‘vital signs’: its ‘pulse’ (seismology), ‘temperature’ (heat flow), and ‘reflexes’ (precision tracking).”  The primary science objective is to understand the formation and evolution of Mars.  A second objective is to determine the level of tectonic activity and meteorite impact rate on the planet.

InSight has two science instruments: the Seismic Experiment Interior Structure (SEIS) provided by the French space agency, CNES, and a Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) provided by the German space agency, DLR.  The latter is a probe that will hammer itself to a depth of 5 meters (about 16 feet) into Mars’ surface.  JPL’s Bruce Banerdt is the mission’s principal investigator.

Artist’s concept of InSight on the surface of Mars with the seismometer package (on the left) and heat flow probe (pointing down) deployed. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Two cubesats called MarCO for Mars Cube One are along for the ride.  They will test miniaturized deep space communication equipment.  They will separate from InSight and follow behind it as they all travel to Mars in a cluster.  MarCO will relay signals from InSight back to Earth as it enters the Martian atmosphere on its way to the surface.  MarCO is a technology demonstration mission and once they relay that information, their mission is done.  The cubesats will fly past the planet and remain in a heliocentric orbit.  The two cubesats are named WALL-E and EVE after the characters in the Disney movie.

InSight was launched on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, the first interplanetary mission to be launched from the West Coast instead of Cape Canaveral, FL.  The launch was delayed from 2016 because of a problem with the CNES-built seismometer that could not be resolved in time for that year’s launch window.  Launch opportunities to Mars occur every 26 months when the two planets are aligned properly, so having missed the 2016 opportunity, it had to wait until now.

InSight is the latest NASA Mars lander.  Two are currently operating on the Martian surface:  Opportunity, which landed in 2004, and Curiosity, which arrived in 2012.   NASA also is operating three spacecraft orbiting Mars:  Mars Odyssesy (which arrived in 2001), Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (2006) and MAVEN (2014).  Europe and India also have orbiters at Mars: Europe’s Mars Express and ExoMars Trace Grace Orbiter, and India’s Mars Orbiter Mission.

NASA’s next Mars mission is Mars 2020, a rover to be launched in 2020 as its name implies.   The European/Russian ExoMars rover, a Chinese orbiter/lander/rover, and a United Arab Emirates orbiter also are scheduled for launch that year.

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