InSight Spacecraft Headed To Mars

NASA launches the Insight space
probe to research the Martian interior

There’s something about going to space that just awakens a sense of possibility. Human technology traveling through the deep dark vastness of the final frontier. It’s been a while since we’ve been able to feel that sense of enlightment regarding a NASA space mission, but that has now changed as the InSight spacecraft launched from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, marking the first interplanetary mission ever to depart from the West Coast. The spacecraft will travel on a six month journey and cover some 301 million miles, with arrival in the Elysium Planitia region of the red planet. This mission is intended to study the interior of Mars.

Understanding the insides of Mars is expected to display how a rocky planet forms, which may then enlighten a little more about the formation of the early solar system itself. InSight stands for “Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport”. Basically, that means that it’s going to be studying movement within the Martian crust, heat within the planet, and atmospheric composition. The lander will dig deeper into Mars than ever before, nearly 16 feet or 5 meters, to take the planet's temperature.

"This will probe the interior of another terrestrial planet, giving us an idea of the size of the core, the mantle, the crust and our ability then to compare that with the Earth," said NASA's chief scientist Jim Green. "This is of fundamental importance to understand the origin of our solar system and how it became the way it is today."

The mission also hopes to make the first measurements of marsquakes, the rumblings and quakes within the center of Mars, using a seismometer placed directly on the Martian surface. Scientists are also interested in research on the degree that the planet wobbles as it orbits. The findings could tell us a lot of information about the planet’s internal makeup. Things like the size of the core, the thickness of the crust, and the chemical makeup of the mantle are all currently unknown to us, but that’s looking to be a temporary lapse of knowledge if all goes well for InSight.

Scientists say they hope the experiment will provide them with clues about what Mars was like in the past and if those conditions could have accommodated life. Equally important, this intense study might also uncover Mars’ long-debated water sources. If it does, that could inspire another mission to look for sources of life.

The InSight is the first Mars expedition launched from California instead of Florida’s Cape Canaveral air base. The east coast takes advantage of Earth’s rotation so that rockets launched on that side of the country get a little extra boost. But now, we’ve reached a point of technical innovation that means we don’t need that boost. The InSight is attached to the Atlas 5 rocket, which is so powerful that it can get that velocity itself. That means NASA could take advantage of the Californian Vandenberg site, since that range is generally less congested and was available for all of the InSights 5-week launch window.

If all goes as planned, InSight should land on Mars sometime in November. "I can't describe to you in words how very excited I am ... to go off to Mars," said project manager Tom Hoffman from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "It's going to be awesome."