NASA's InSight Mars Lander is Now Ready to Launch From California This Week

Tuesday, 01 May 2018 - 7:36PM
Space
Mars
NASA
Tuesday, 01 May 2018 - 7:36PM
NASA's InSight Mars Lander is Now Ready to Launch From California This Week
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NASA/JPL-Caltech
The robotic population on Mars will be increasing by one this fall, when NASA's InSight lander touches down on the Red Planet. And its trip starts at the end of this week. 

Following a final inspection of its heat shield, a very necessary tool for making sure the craft doesn't burn up while it enters the Martian atmosphere at high speeds, NASA has declared that its safety checks are now done without any sufficiently scary findings, and that InSight is ready to launch. But it's not launching from NASA's preferred Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Instead, InSight will be launched on an Atlas V rocket this coming Saturday, May 5, 2018, from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in southern California. The reason for the big change isn't anything too fancy - as a stationary lander that will be digging beneath Mars' surface, InSight is a rather low-budget mission, and the Atlas V rocket has enough leftover power that it's cheaper to launch from California instead of Florida.



While it will be cheaper, InSight is still doing important work. Once it lands, it will use a robotic arm, a seismometer, and several other tools to peek under the surface of Mars in some literal and more metaphorical ways. While that robotic arm digs around, it will also be listening for "marsquakes," an unusual phenomenon since Mars doesn't have plate tectonics like Earth does.

But something is shaking the planet, and InSight intends to discover what that is. Possible reasons for seismic activity could involve magma, meteor strikes, or a number of other possibilities, but it all points to the larger problem that we're not entirely sure what Mars looks like deeper toward its core. 

And once we learn about that, we can start to piece together how Mars might have first formed, before gaining and losing liquid water over billions of years as its surface dried up.

This last safety check for the InSight lander involved the heat shield for a very specific reason: a heat shield recently fractured during an early test for NASA's Mars 2020 rover, a mobile craft that will launch in 2020 as a more advanced rover than what we currently have on Mars, such as Curiosity and Opportunity. While the busted heat shield won't delay Mars 2020, a flaw discovered this close to InSight's launch date would be a major issue.

Luckily, this shield is rather different in design, so InSight should be able to land on Mars without crashing at high speeds, unlike the unfortunate and destroyed European ExoMars lander from a couple years ago.
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