Next Mars mission due to launch

Launch window for Mars InSight opens May 5, 2018. It’s the 1st interplanetary mission to go up from the U.S. West Coast. NASA said: “InSight’s pre-dawn launch may be visible for more than 10 million Californians … “

The next NASA robot to explore Mars will launch in just a few weeks. The launch window opens as soon as May 5, 2018, for Mars InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport), with the lander due to set down on Mars’ surface in November 2018. The six-month journey to Mars will go up from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, a site that’s less rocket-congested than the launch pads at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Mars Insight will be the first interplanetary mission to launch from the U.S. West Coast. The Atlas V rocket will have an initial trajectory towards the south-southeast, and NASA said:

Weather permitting, InSight’s pre-dawn launch (approximately 4 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…

In past decades, orbiters have peered down on Mars from above, and robotic rovers have crept along its surface. Mars InSight is designed to study what’s inside Mars. The stationary lander – similar to the 2008 Phoenix lander on the red planet – will help scientists understand how the rocky planets in our solar system – like Mars, Venus and Earth – formed. The mission’s objective is to detect seismic activity on Mars and analyse the subsurface by studying the thickness and size of Mars’ core, mantle and crust.

InSight will also detect the frequency of ongoing meteorite impacts. Mars is closer than Earth to the asteroid belt, which lies between it and the next plant outward, Jupiter. Mars’ atmosphere is thinner than Earth’s. These two conditions might contribute to hundreds of small space rocks reaching the surface of our neighboring planet.

The solar-powered lander will deploy a seismometer built by the Centre National d’études Spatiales (CNES) from the French Space Agency. It also contains a heat probe to monitor heat flow from Mars’ interior, which was provided by the German Aerospace Center, and other instruments built by Italy, Spain, and NASA’s JPL. The mission is scheduled to last two years.

Landing on Mars is hard, and some spacecraft have crashed while attempting it. Before the Curiosity rover mission landed in 2012, the mission team described the lander’s planned descent through Mars’ thin atmosphere and (ultimately successful) landing attempt as seven minutes of terror.

InSight will be landing in a way similar to Curiosity. InSight will enter Mars’ atmosphere at 14,100 miles per hour (22,692 km/h). During the entry phase, it will use very small rockets to adjust its initial trajectory toward the surface. Then it uses a large parachute, and then 12 descent engines or “retrojets,” whose firings will be continuously adjusted by an onboard computer in order to keep the spacecraft leveled and slowing down until the moment of touchdown. This type of landing technology was successfully used by the Viking 1 and 2 landers in 1976, and by the Phoenix lander in 2008. The Curiosity rover, which descended on Mars on 2012, added a skycrane with cables to this technology, to avoid dust over the rover’s instruments and cameras.

InSight will attempt to land in Elysium Planitia, an area not far from the Curiosity’s landing site, along the equator of the red planet.

By the way, Mars will be having a close encounter with Earth this summer. It’ll be the best Mars viewing since 2003, which was the best viewing in some 60,000 years. In addition providing earthly skywatchers with grand views of the red planet’s features through a telescope, this 2018 opposition of Mars also provides a good opportunity to send a Mars spacecraft winging its way.

Bottom line: Mars InSight lander launch window opens May 5, 2018. Californians will be able to see the launch, which will be at Vandenberg Air Force Base to avoid Florida’s heavy rocket traffic.

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