When NASAs next mission to Mars blasts off in May, it will become the first spacecraft launched from California to travel to another planet.
Project manager and California native Tom Hoffman jokes that hes breaking up the East Coasts monopoly on interplanetary launches.
But mostly, the Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Barbara County became the first choice because of how congested other launch sites, such as the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, have become in recent years.
“We have twice as many launches out of Kennedy as we do out of Vandenberg,” Hoffman said. “It allowed us to more easily get a 35-day launch period.”
InSight – Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Head Transports – is a stationary lander that will study Mars interior, Martian earthquakes and how planets, including Earth, may have formed.
NASA will have two-hour launch windows every morning from May 5 to June 8, something that wouldnt have been possible at Kennedy because of the number of other launches. Vandenberg is primarily used by satellites entering an orbit that circles the Earths poles, instead of a more common orbit that synchronizes with the planets rotation.
Historically, NASAs Jet Propulsion Laboratory, based in La Canada Flintridge, has launched its robotic missions to Mars out of Cape Canaveral. Florida is ideal because the close proximity to the equator means NASA can take advantage of the Earths rotation to fling the rocket into space, Hoffman said.
InSight is able to launch from California because the Atlas V is much larger than the Delta II rockets used in older missions to Mars, Hoffman said. Those rockets, which are no longer in production, would not have enough energy to launch from Vandenberg.
“We have to fight the Earth more,” he said. “Most planetary launches have to go out of the East Coast because they dont have all the excess capabilities that we have with the Atlas.”
Most of the team is expected to travel to Vandenberg to watch the launch. Typically, the launches from the East Coast are attended by essential personnel because of the cost, Hoffman said. InSight was originally supposed to launch in 2016, but it was delayed because of a leaky seal on one of the science instruments.
If the weather permits, the rockets ascent should be visible from Santa Maria to San Diego on May 5.
“It should be spectacular,” Hoffman said. “If you happen to be up with nothing better to do at four in the morning, just take a look out your back window.”
InSight is similar in design to 2008s Phoenix lander. While Phoenix studied Mars habitability, InSights goal is to look deeper. It will carry instruments that can measure “Marsquakes,” the temperatures below the surface and the size of the planets core.
“In essence, it will take the vital signs of Mars, its pulse, its temperature and much more,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASAs associate administrator for the science mission directorate. “We like to say its the first thorough check up since the planet formed four and a half billion years ago.”
The data collected about Mars interior will teach humanity about the formation of the Earth, our Moon and rocky planets in other solar systems, Zurbuchen said.
“This is more than just a Mars mission,” he said.
Mars is less geologically active than the Earth and has retained the fingerprints of the early processes that formed the planet, according to Bruce Banerdt, InSights principal investigator. One goal is to help planetary scientists understand how a “a ball of featureless rock” becomes a planet that may sustain life.
Its instruments include a drill that will measure heat 16 feet beneath the surface and an extremely sensitive seismometer that can detect earthquakes on the opposite side of the planet. Unlike NASAs rovers, these instruments require the spacecraft to stand still.
“Were going to start getting the kind of detailed information about the inside of Mars that weve been waiting for for 40 to 50 years,” Banerdt said.
InSight will arrive at Mars in November, roughly six months after it leaves California.
It is expected to operate on the planet for at least 26 months – or one Martian year. Two microchips embedded on the spacecraft will carry the names of millions of fans who signed up ahead of the launch.
EDITORS NOTE: This article has been edited to correct the spelling of Bruce Banerdts name.