The Insight Mars mission is on its way to the red planet, following a successful May 5, 2018, predawn liftoff from Space Launch Complex 3 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. InSight‘s lander is due to set down on Mars’ surface in November 2018.
InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) was the first planetary mission to launch from the U.S. West Coast.
— NASA JPL (@NASAJPL) May 5, 2018
The Atlas V rocket reached an initial parking orbit at an altitude of 115 miles (185 km) about 13 minutes after launch, when the rocket was about 1,200 miles (1,900 km) northwest of Isabella Island, Ecuador. It then passed over Tierra del Fuego and Antarctica. Then its trajectory continued to the north, passing close to India, and finally near Alaska, where the InSight spacecraft separated from the rocket to continue its journey to Mars.
The spacecraft’s separation from the rocket occurred about 90 minutes after launch. A full replay of launch coverage is below:
Six months from now, during Insight’s entry, descent and landing, NASA will use the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) to record the descent data as it passes over InSight’s landing site on Mars, transmitting it to Earth during a later orbit.
Landing on Mars is hard, and some spacecraft have crashed while attempting it. Before the Curiosity rover mission landed in 2012, the mission team described that lander’s planned descent through Mars’ thin atmosphere and (ultimately successful) landing attempt as seven minutes of terror.
InSight will be landing in a way similar to Curiosity. InSight will enter Mars’ atmosphere at 14,100 miles per hour (22,692 km/h). During the entry phase, it will use very small rockets to adjust its initial trajectory toward the surface. Then it uses a large parachute, and then 12 descent engines, or “retrojets,” whose firings will be continuously adjusted by an onboard computer in order to keep the spacecraft leveled and slowing down until the moment of touchdown. This type of landing technology was successfully used by the Viking 1 and 2 landers in 1976, and by the Phoenix lander in 2008. The Curiosity rover, which descended on Mars on 2012, added a skycrane with cables to this technology, to avoid dust over the rover’s instruments and cameras.
By the way, launched on the same rocket as Insight was a separate NASA technology experiment known as Mars Cube One (MarCO). MarCO consists of two mini-spacecraft – nicknamed Wall-E and Eva by space engineers – and will be the first test of CubeSat communications and navigation technologies in deep space. Following the Insight launch on May 5, NASA received radio signals indicating the two CubeSats are alive and well.
Marco? Polo… in space!
A pair of intrepid spacecraft launched today with @NASAInSight are the first-ever deep space CubeSats. #MARCO A and B are healthy, communicating and on their journey toward #Mars. https://t.co/4UoyCfdM3I pic.twitter.com/qq33yx6pSX
— NASA JPL (@NASAJPL) May 5, 2018
InSight Mars will attempt to land in Elysium Planitia, an area not far from Curiosity’s landing site, along the equator of the red planet.
Once InSight is safe on the surface of Mars, signals from it will be received by three radio telescopes: the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy’s facility at Effelsberg, Germany; the Institute of Radio Astronomy of Bologna’s Sardinia Radio Telescope, on the Italian island of Sardinia; and the National Science Foundation’s Green Bank Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia.
Another orbiter from NASA, Mars Odyssey, is expected to provide more information about InSight, as it flies over the small lander after the entry, descent and landing process.
In past decades, orbiters have peered down on Mars from above, and robotic rovers have crept along its surface. InSight Mars is designed to study what’s inside Mars. The stationary lander – similar to the 2008 Phoenix lander on the red planet – will help scientists understand how the rocky planets in our solar system – like Mars, Venus and Earth – formed. The mission’s objective is to detect seismic activity on Mars and analyze the subsurface by studying the thickness and size of Mars’ core, mantle and crust.
InSight will also detect the frequency of ongoing meteorite impacts. Mars is closer than Earth to the asteroid belt, which lies between it and the next planet outward, Jupiter. Mars’ atmosphere is thinner than Earth’s. These two conditions might contribute to hundreds of small space rocks reaching the surface of our neighboring planet.
The solar-powered lander will deploy a seismometer built by the Centre national d’études spatiales (CNES) from the French Space Agency. It also contains a heat probe to monitor heat flow from Mars’ interior, which was provided by the German Aerospace Center, and other instruments built by Italy, Spain, and NASA’s JPL. The mission is scheduled to last two years.
2018 is Mars’ year … and not just because of Insight Mars. For us earthbound observers, Mars will appear especially bright in our sky, due to a close encounter with Earth this summer. 2018 will offer the best Mars viewing since 2003, which was the best viewing in some 60,000 years. In addition to providing earthly skywatchers with grand views of the red planet’s features through a telescope, this 2018 opposition of Mars also provides a good opportunity to send a Mars spacecraft winging its way.
Bon voyage, InSight Mars!
— NASA_LSP (@NASA_LSP) May 5, 2018
Bottom line: InSight Mars launched May 5, 2018, from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
Eddie Irizarry of the Sociedad de Astronomía del Caribe (Astronomical Society of the Caribbean) has been a NASA Solar System Ambassador since 2004. He loves public outreach and has published multiple astronomy articles for EarthSky, as well as for newspapers in Puerto Rico. He has also offered dozens of conferences related to asteroids and comets at the Arecibo Observatory.