VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. — With the orange flames of its engine lighting up the foggy sky for miles around, a car-sized Mars lander rocketed into space early Saturday in a first-of-its-kind launch from California on a mission to probe beneath the surface of the Red Planet.
The nearly $1 billion Mars InSight probe blasted off shortly after 4 a.m. local time, roaring south down the coast to the delight of crowds gathered on beaches and church parking lots to watch in the pre-dawn darkness. The lander’s two-year mission aims to understand what makes the Red Planet like Earth and help advance the search for new homes for our species.
“It’s unbelievable. It’s literally unbelievable. I just stand here in awe,” said InSight principal investigator Bruce Banerdt a few minutes before launch. Banerdt has been shepherding the project for nearly a decade, through construction and a scrubbed 2016 launch due to an equipment failure. Scientists had to wait two years until Mars and the Earth aligned again so the probe could start its approximately 200-day journey
This was NASA’s first interplanetary launch from the West Coast, a decision made in large part because Vandenberg’s launch pads are less busy than the ones at Cape Canaveral’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
InSight’s main mission is to check for quakes beneath Mars’ surface, which will help us learn how our solar system was created and lay the groundwork for similar exploration of potentially habitable planets elsewhere in the universe. Although Earth and Mars are generally formed of the same material, scientists want to know why the two planets ended up different. In addition to science experiments, the lander also carries two tiny silicon wafers engraved with the names of 2.4 million people who signed up via a public awareness campaign.
InSight is expected to reach Mars around Thanksgiving of this year, hitting the thin Martian atmosphere at about 13,200 mph, and then slowing down through friction, a parachute, and then right before reaching the surface, with thrusters. Even if the probe reaches Mars, there’s no guarantee of success: Missions to the Red Planet have just a 40% success rate, NASA said.
“The scary part is when we get to Mars,” said Tom Hoffman, the InSight project manager for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “You never know what Mars is going to throw at you.”
Federal taxpayers have provided about $813 million for the lander, with another $180 million from Germany and France. JPL also funded an additional $18.5 million to test two shoebox-sized “cubesats” that can act like cellphone towers, relaying information from the lander back to Earth. Those cubesats use inexpensive off-the-shelf technology and will help monitor the lander’s descent. If all goes well, this will be the first time cubesats have been used anywhere but in Earth orbit and could lay the groundwork for their use in other space exploration as humans expand our search of the stars.
By early 2019, scientists hope InSight’s instruments will be reporting back everything from how often the planet quakes to how warm the soil is, thanks to a probe designed to burrow nearly 20 feet below ground. That probe will be “picked” off the top of the lander by a robotic arm, the first time one has been used on another planet. Color cameras will photograph the area around the lander, which was built to withstand temperatures as low as minus-148 degrees below zero. Because Mars is geologically more stable than Earth, its interior may hold answers that have been erased here at home.