By George Christopher Thomas
LOMPOC, CA — A few miles north of Santa Barbara just along the coast of Central California, the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) and the U.S. Air Force are planning another mission to Mars. Set to launch the first part of May, the InSight space project will be taking seismic and geological samples of the red planet. This will also be the mission that conducts the most extensive tests of our neighboring planet to date. The data collected will not only give us insight (hence the name) into the history of Mars, but it will help us better understand the life cycle of Earth. And with an $800 million price tag, this remote-controlled contraption is nothing to sneeze at, or even sneeze on if you are lucky enough to get that close to the spaceship.
(For a more scientific explanation) — InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) is a NASA Discovery Program mission that will place a single geophysical lander on Mars to study its deep interior. But InSight is more than a Mars mission – it is a terrestrial planet explorer that will address one of the most fundamental issues of planetary and solar system science – understanding the processes that shaped the rocky planets of the inner solar system (including Earth) more than four billion years ago. By using sophisticated geophysical instruments, InSight will delve deep beneath the surface of Mars, detecting the fingerprints of the processes of terrestrial planet formation, as well as measuring the planet’s “vital signs”: Its “pulse” (seismology), “temperature” (heat flow probe), and “reflexes” (precision tracking). InSight seeks to answer one of science’s most fundamental questions: How did the terrestrial planets form?
Set to launch on May 5th from Vandenburg Air Force Base, this is the first interplanetary launch ever from the West Coast. The trip to Mars takes about 6 months, even if you floor your spaceship. The humdinger of it all is the entry into the atmosphere. What NASA commonly refers to as the “7 minutes of terror,” this is the time that is most important to the entire mission.
NASA Engineer Tom Rivellini sums it up best when he says, “Entry, descent and landing, also known as EDL, is referred to as the 7 minutes of terror. Because we’ve got literally seven minutes to get from the top of the atmosphere to the surface of Mars-going from 13,000 miles an hour to zero, in perfect sequence, perfect choreography, perfect timing…and the computer has to do it all by itself, with no help from the ground. If any one thing doesn’t work just right, its game over.”
All of NASA’s interplanetary launches to date have been from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, in part because the physics of launching off the East Coast are better for journeys to other planets. However, InSight will break the mold by launching from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. It will be the first launch to another planet from the West Coast. A whole new region of the country will get to see an interplanetary launch when InSight rockets into the sky. On a clear day, the launch may be visible from Santa Maria to San Diego. Weather permitting, InSight’s pre-dawn launch (4:05 a.m.) may be visible for more than 10 million Californians without a need for them to drive to a special location. Just wake up early, check the InSight Website for assurance the launch is still on schedule, go outside, look at the western sky marvel at the rocket’s flare as it travels southward, and cheer InSight bon voyage to Mars.
Some fun facts about Mars that you just pick up when you hang out with astronauts include that you can only launch a mission there every two years, and the window is 35 days. Outside that window, the planets do not line up and it is impossible to get there. Another fun one is one year on Earth is actually half a year on Mars, so if you are 41 years old, let’s just say, on Mars you would be 20 1/2 years old. Getting ready to take that shot of 151 in a few months. And just because it is worth making the joke, you do have to be a “Rocket Scientist” to launch a rover to Mars.
On board the 189-foot-tall (57.3-meter) United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket will be NASA’s InSight spacecraft, destined for the Elysium Planitia region located in Mars’ northern hemisphere. The May 5 launch window for the InSight mission opens at 4:05 am PDT (7:05 EDT, 11:05 UTC) and remains open for two hours.
NASA’s InSight to Mars undergoes final preparations at Vandenberg AFB, Calif., ahead of its May 5 launch date.
“If you live in Southern California and the weather is right, you’ll probably have a better view of the launch than I will,” said Tom Hoffman, project manager for NASA’s InSight mission from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “I’ll be stuck inside a control room looking at monitors — which is not the best way to enjoy an Atlas 5 on its way to Mars.”
In clear skies, the InSight launch should be viewable up and down a wide swath of the California coast. Residents from as far north as Bakersfield to perhaps as far south as Rosarito, Mexico, may see the Atlas rocket rising in the predawn sky and then heading south, parallel to the coastline.
The United Launch Alliance two-stage Atlas V 401 launch vehicle will produce 860,200 pounds (3.8 million newtons) of thrust as it climbs away from its launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base, near Lompoc, California. During the first 17 seconds of powered flight, the Atlas V will climb vertically above its launch pad. Then it will begin a pitch and yaw maneuver that will place it on a trajectory towards Earth’s south pole.
“After lift-off from Vandenberg’s Space Launch Complex 3, the Atlas V begins a southerly trajectory and climbs out over the Channel Islands off Oxnard,” said Tim Dunn, launch director for the Launch Services Program at the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “If you live on the California Central Coast or south to L.A. and San Diego, be sure to get up early on May 5th, because Atlas V is the gold standard in launch vehicles and it can put on a great show.”
Mach One occurs 1 minute and 18 seconds into the Atlas V’s powered flight. At that time the vehicle will be about 30,000 feet (9 kilometers) in altitude and 1 mile (1.75 kilometers) down range. Two minutes and 36 seconds later, the Atlas first stage will shut down at an altitude of about 66 miles (106 kilometers) and 184 miles (296 kilometers) down range. The Centaur second stage (carrying InSight inside a 40-foot-long payload fairing) separates from the now-dead first stage six seconds later. Ten seconds later, the Centaur’s engine kicks in with its 22,890 pounds (101,820 newtons) of thrust, which will carry it and InSight into its 115-mile-high (185-kilometer) parking orbit 13 minutes and 16 seconds after launch. This parking orbit will last 59 to 66 minutes, depending on the date and time of the launch. The Centaur will then re-ignite for one last burn at one hour and 19 minutes after launch, placing InSight into a Mars-bound interplanetary trajectory. Spacecraft separation from the Centaur will occur about 93 minutes after liftoff for the first May 5 launch opportunity as the spacecraft is approximately over the Alaska-Yukon region.
InSight’s launch period is May 5 through June 8, 2018, with multiple launch opportunities over windows of approximately two hours each date. Launch opportunities are set five minutes apart during each date’s window. Additional information on viewing the launch in person is here. Live televised coverage of the launch will be available here.
Whichever date the launch occurs, InSight’s landing on Mars is planned for Nov. 26, 2018, around noon PST (3 p.m. EST / 20:00 UTC).
NASA’s Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) lander will study the deep interior of Mars to learn how all rocky planets formed, including Earth and its moon. The lander’s instruments include a seismometer to detect marsquakes and a probe that will monitor the flow of heat in the planet’s subsurface.
NASA’ s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, manages InSight for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. InSight is part of NASA’s Discovery Program, managed by the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The InSight spacecraft, including cruise stage and lander, was built and tested by Lockheed Martin Space in Denver. NASA’s Launch Services Program at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida provides launch management. United Launch Alliance of Centennial, Colorado, is NASA’s launch service provider of the Atlas 5 rocket. A number of European partners, including France’s Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES) and the German Aerospace Center (DLR), are supporting the InSight mission. Click here for more information about InSight.