By Eric Mack and CBSLA Staff
VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE (CNET/CBSLA) — All eyes will be on Vandenberg Air Force Base early Saturday morning when NASA launches a historic Mars mission designed to probe the Red Planet’s core.
At 4:05 a.m. Pacific time Saturday, the InSight spacecraft is scheduled to take off from Vandenberg aboard the Atlas V rocket. The launch window will last about two hours, and the launch period, the number of days over which the spacecraft can launch, will run through June 8.
As CNET’s Eric Mack reports, after InSight lands, it will set up shop in one spot to look, listen and drill deep into the hidden history of the planet next door by detecting “Marsquakes,” mapping Mars’ interior and more.
Mars InSight stands for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport. It will be the first ever interplanetary mission to launch from the West Coast.
According to NASA, the launch will be visible to more than 10 million Californians. Click here for information on how to watch the event.
If all goes as planned, InSight will land on a broad Martian plain called Elysium Planitia, which is not far from where Curiosity is currently exploring Gale Crater.
InSight is scheduled to reach Mars on Nov. 26, no matter when the launch actually takes place. There will be the same “seven minutes of terror” that mission control experienced with the landing of the Mars rover Curiosity. It takes that long to descend through the Martian atmosphere and represents perhaps the riskiest few minutes during which something could go wrong and endanger the entire $830 million mission.
Most of the lander’s time will be spent just sitting and “listening” to the interior of Mars as it measures the planet’s subsurface heat and detects earthquakes (well, that’d be Marsquakes). The goal is to develop a map of sorts of the planet’s “guts” and hopefully gain insights into the formation of other rocky planets, including our own.
“In some ways, InSight is like a scientific time machine that will bring back information about the earliest stages of Mars’ formation 4.5 billion years ago,” Bruce Banerdt, principal InSight investigator, said in a statement from NASA. “It will help us learn how rocky bodies form, including Earth, its moon, and even planets in other solar systems.”
Mars InSight was built by Lockheed Martin and includes a number of instruments developed by NASA and other science institutions around the world. One of those, the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS), is so sensitive it can measure shifts in the ground smaller than a hydrogen atom.
Although InSight’s mission is planned to last just two Earth years, Martian craft have a track record of lasting long past their expiration dates. The Opportunity rover was designed to last 90 days on the Red Planet, but it just celebrated its 5,000th operational day on Mars in February.
Mapping out Mars’ internal heat could transport us back to Earth’s early days, Troy Hudson from the HP3 science team explained in a lecture at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
“Whatever dynamo (Mars) had to create a magnetic field early in its life is now gone. It’s stopped,” he said. “Mars has frozen into an early state. Possibly a state like Earth when it was young before Earth erased that evidence with tectonics and convection. So by studying Mars, we get a glimpse into what Earth may have once been like.”