Nasa spacecraft blasts off to look into ‘Marsquakes' and take planet temperature
Nasa has launched a spacecraft to land on Mars and explore the mysterious insides of the red planet.
A robotic geologist armed with a hammer and quake monitor is rocketing towards Mars after the successful launch of the craft on Saturday.
In a twist, Nasa launched the Mars InSight lander from California rather than Florida’s Cape Canaveral.
It was the first interplanetary mission ever to depart from the US West Coast, drawing pre-dawn crowds to Vandenberg Air Force Base and rocket watchers down the California coast into Baja.
The spacecraft will take more than six months to get to Mars and start its unprecedented geological excavations, travelling 300 million miles to get there.
InSight will dig deeper into Mars than ever before – nearly 16 feet – to take the planet’s temperature.
It will also attempt to make the first measurements of ‘Marsquakes’, using a high-tech seismometer placed directly on the Martian surface.
Also aboard the Atlas V rocket: A pair of mini-satellites, or CubeSats, meant to trail InSight all the way to Mars in a first-of-its-kind technology demonstration.
The one billion dollar mission involves scientists from the US, France, Germany and elsewhere in Europe.
“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.”
Nasa has not put a spacecraft down on Mars since the Curiosity rover in 2012.
The US is the only country to successfully land and operate a spacecraft at Mars. Only about 40% of all missions to Mars from all countries – orbiters and landers alike – have proven successful over the decades.
If all goes well, the three-legged InSight will descend by parachute and engine firings onto a flat equatorial region of Mars – believed to be free of big, potentially dangerous rocks – on November 26.
Once down, it will stay put, using a mechanical arm to place the science instruments on the surface.
“This mission 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.”
InSight’s chief scientist, Bruce Banerdt of JPL, said Mars is ideal for learning how the rocky planets of our solar system formed 4.5 billion years ago. Unlike our active Earth, Mars has not been transformed by plate tectonics and other processes, he noted.
Over the course of two Earth years – or one Martian year – scientists expect InSight’s three main experiments to provide a true 3-D image of Mars.
The lander is equipped with a seismometer for measuring Marsquakes, a self-hammering probe for burrowing beneath the surface, and a radio system for tracking the spacecraft’s position and planet’s wobbly rotation, thereby revealing the size and composition of Mars’ core.
“InSight, for seismologists, will really be a piece of history, a new page of history,” said the Paris Institute of Earth Physics’ Philippe Lognonne, lead scientist of the InSight seismometer.
Problems with the French-supplied seismometer kept InSight from launching two years ago. California was always part of the plan.
Nasa normally launches from Cape Canaveral, but decided to switch to California for InSight to take advantage of a shorter flight backlog.