NASA Launches Their New 'InSight' Mission To Look Beneath the Surface of Mars
NASA conducted an unusual rocket launch early Saturday morning, sending a new mission off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, rather than their usual Kennedy Space Center in Florida. But the destination is still Mars.
Because at about 4:05 a.m. Pacific Time, an Atlas V rocket blasted off carrying NASA's "Mars Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport", which somehow shortens to its more well-known name of "InSight". According to the space agency, the rocket's second stage (which carries InSight) reached orbit about 13 minutes and 16 seconds after launch, with another ignition 79 minutes after launch to send InSight toward Mars.
Once it reaches Mars around November 2018, the Mars InSight lander will touch down and do something we've never attempted before: look beneath the surface of the Red Planet.
LIFTOFF! Humanity's next mission to Mars has left the pad! @NASAInSight heads into space for a ~6 month journey to Mars where it will take the planet's vital signs and help us understand how rocky planets formed. Watch: https://t.co/SA1B0Dglms pic.twitter.com/wBqFc47L5p— NASA (@NASA) May 5, 2018
Despite the rather low-budget nature of the mission, since InSight is just a stationary lander rather than a fully mobile rover, there were no complications and InSight is safely on its way to Mars. Tom Hoffman, the InSight project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said the following in a press release from the space agency:
If you didn't pick it up from the mission's long name, the InSight lander will be using a seismometer and several other tools (including a robotic arm) to study "marsquakes" and other seismic activity. Mars doesn't appear to have plate tectonics like Earth, making the quakes a mystery, but we otherwise know very little about what Mars looks like closer to its core.
By studying its seismic activity and its core, mantle, and crust, we can gain a greater understanding of the planet's earliest days as we learn how it looks "under the hood", so to speak, as there will be lots of Martian history within the planet's interior. And this will help us learn how the planet works and how it's evolved over billions of years, going from a planet filled with surface water (and possibly life) to the barren red rock it's become today.
Once we have a good idea of what Mars' interior looks like, we can put that to use by comparing it to Earth in case our home planet is on a similar track a few billion years down the line. And if we do end up landing humans on Mars in the near future, it'll be better if they know what exactly is happening beneath them.
But first InSight has to reach Mars - we'll worry about getting humans there later down the line.