Published : Thursday, March 1, 2018 | 7:22 PM
Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena is getting ready to send a landing probe to Mars for the first time since the Curiosity rover arrived at the Red Planet in 2012.
On Wednesday, the probe known as InSight landed at Vandenberg Air Force north of Santa Barbara in preparation for launch in the next few months, a KPCC report said.
The lander, which made the trip aboard an Air Force C-17 cargo plane from Denver, will have its vital signs checked, then be shot into space in May.
While Curiosity and other landing probes sent to Mars have been focused on the planet’s exterior terrain, looking at its composition and checking for signs of water and life, InSight will have a whole new focus: the planet’s interior.
“In some ways it’s going to a whole new planet. I mean we explored the surface of Mars, but all we’ve ever done is scratched the surface,” Bruce Banerdt, principle investigator of the InSight mission, said in the KPCC report. “And now, we’re going to explore all of the inside of Mars, which is a whole new ballgame.”
A JPL news release Wednesday said InSight will use the seismic waves generated by marsquakes (quakes on Mars) to map the deep interior of the planet. These waves travel through geologic materials at different speeds and reflect off boundaries, giving scientists a glimpse of the composition and structure of the planet’s interior. They reflect the initial formation of the planet, and the resulting insights into how Mars formed should help scientists better understand how other rocky planets are created, including our own Earth.
“The inside of Mars is really a vault that’s storing all of this evidence from the early solar system,” Banerdt tells KPCC. “So, by going and mapping out the inside of Mars, we’re really kind of going back in time, like a time machine, to the earliest stages of the solar system formation so that we can actually understand how our planet got here.”
In preparation for launch, InSight will begin functional testing at Vanderbilt to verify its state of health after the flight from Denver. After that, the team will load updated flight software and perform a series of mission readiness tests. These tests involve the entire spacecraft flight system, the associated science instruments, and the ground data system.
“One of the most important activities before launch is to load the spacecraft with the fuel needed for the journey to Mars,” Tom Hoffman, InSight project manager at JPL, said. “After fuel loading, the spacecraft will undergo a spin-balance test to determine precisely the center of mass. This knowledge is needed to be sure the entry and descent into the Mars atmosphere go as planned.”
The spacecraft will be carried into space aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V-401 rocket lifting off from Space Launch Complex 3E at Vandenberg Air Force Base, possibly on May 4. The launch window opens at 4:05 a.m. Pacific and remains open through 6:05 a.m.
NASA says InSight will be the first planetary spacecraft to launch from the West Coast and is expected to arrive on Mars in November.
To learn more about InSight, visit www.mars.nasa.gov/insight/.