NASA is launching a new spacecraft to Mars, that will study the deep interior of the red planet to learn how all rocky planets and their moons are formed. This is the first time that a space mission will be launched from America’s West Coast, NASA said.
Most of US’ interplanetary missions take off from the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, located on the East Coast of the country. On May 5, the historic first interplanetary launch from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California will take place. On board the 57.3-metre-tall United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket will be NASA’s Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) lander, destined for the Elysium Planitia region located in Mars’ northern hemisphere.
The InSight lander will study the deep interior of Mars to learn how all rocky planets formed, including Earth and its Moon. Its instruments include a seismometer to detect marsquakes and a probe that will monitor the flow of heat in the planet’s subsurface. The launch window for the InSight mission opens at 4:05 am PDT (4:30pm) and remains open for two hours. In clear skies, the InSight launch should be viewable up and down a wide swath of the California coast.
The United Launch Alliance two-stage Atlas V 401 launch vehicle will produce 3.8 million Newtons of thrust as it climbs away from its launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base. During the first 17 seconds of powered flight, the Atlas V will climb vertically above its launch pad. Then it will begin a manoeuvre 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 at the John F Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
About 1 minute and 18 seconds into the Atlas V’s powered flight, the vehicle will be about nine kilometres in altitude and 1.75 kilometres down range. Two minutes and 36 seconds later, the Atlas first stage will shut down at an altitude of about 106 and 296 kilometres down range. The second stage will separate from the now-dead first stage six seconds later. Ten seconds later, the Centaur’s engine kicks in with its 101,820 newtons of thrust, which will carry it and InSight into its 185-kilometre 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.
Whichever date the launch occurs, InSight’s landing on Mars is planned for November 26.