NASA’s InSight spacecraft is on its way to Mars after a predawn launch off California’s Central Coast.
The lander took off from Vandenberg Air Force Base at 4:05 a.m. PDT.
The trip to Mars will take nearly seven months and cover roughly 301 million miles. Mission planners at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge expect the lander to touch down in Elysium Planitia Nov. 26.
Once there, InSight will begin a two-year primary mission to study the planet’s deep interior.
Scientists with the InSight mission — its full name is Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport — hope that clues beneath the Martian surface will help them learn more about what the planet was like in the past — when conditions could have been hospitable to life as we know it — and how it came to be the barren world we know today.
InSight will examine Mars in three ways.
It will place a seismometer on the ground to listen for seismic waves caused by marsquakes — the Martian analog to earthquakes — and by falling meteorites. By studying the waves that have passed through the planet, scientists can get a better understanding of what the interior is made of.
InSight will also deploy a heat flow probe 16 feet underground. By comparing the readings from different depths, scientists can determine the temperature of the interior.
Lastly, the lander will gather clues about the size and density of the Martian core by taking detailed measurements of its oscillations. Mars’ north pole wobbles as the planet travels around the sun, and that will affect the time it takes for radio signals to travel back and forth between InSight and Earth.
Saturday’s launch was the first time NASA launched an interplanetary mission from the West Coast.
Usually, such missions take off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida and head east over the Atlantic Ocean. That way, Earth’s eastward rotation can provide a natural boost.
InSight instead headed south over the Pacific aboard a Atlas V-401 launch vehicle, which can ferry the spacecraft beyond the pull of Earth’s gravity using its own power