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ULA rocket launches NASA's Mars lander

By Brooks Hays and Sam Howard

May 5 (UPI) -- NASA's newest Mars mission, the InSight lander, blasted off from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base at 4:05 a.m. PT (7:05 a.m. ET).

A two-stage Atlas V 401 rocket carried the lander and its instruments into space. Because InSight is slightly smaller than typical Mars-bound spacecraft, United Launch Alliance was able to deploy a smaller, lighter rocket.

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Saturday's blastoff marked the first time a planetary mission has launched from the West Coast. Putting a spacecraft into a Mars-bound trajectory from the Pacific side of the United States requires a bit more thrust, and thus, a bit more fuel.

But the smaller, lighter rocket and payload can go farther and faster without expending too much fuel.

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In all, it will take about six months for InSight to reach Mars. InSight is a lander, but unlike NASA's previous Mars-bound craft, it's not a rover. It will spend it's entire mission in the same place that it lands. Its solitary nature will allow the lander's seismometer to listen intently to the seismic waves traveling through Mars' insides.

Insight's SEIS instrument will listen for the seismic reverberations triggered by both marsquakes -- earthquakes but on Mars -- and meteorite impacts.

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The patterns of different seismic waves can reveal details about Mars' insides. Scientists hope these patterns will help them better understand Mars' inner structures and composition, as well as offer insights into the Red Planet's origins and evolution.

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InSight is also outfitted with a 16-foot-long heat probe that will measure how well Mars' rock and soil conducts thermal energy.

Together, the two instruments will help planetary scientists better understand evolution of all rocky planets, including Earth. Mars looks a lot like Earth, but because it's smaller and cooler, its insides no longer have the thermal energy to power tectonic and magmatic activity.

Because the Red Planet's convection has slowed to a standstill, looking at Mars' insides will be like looking back in time. And because Earth's convection will eventually slow, too, looking at Mars' insides will also be looking into the future.

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