NASA’s InSight Mars spacecraft ready for launch
LOMPOC, Calif. — NASA and United Launch Alliance (ULA) are set to fly the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) Mars lander atop an Atlas V 401 rocket from Space Launch Complex-3 at Vandenberg Air Force Base to begin a 6.5-month journey to the Red Planet. Liftoff is scheduled for the opening of a two-hour launch window at 4:05 a.m. PDT (7:05 a.m. EDT / 11:05 GMT) May 5, 2018.
Launch week began with a flight readiness review on April 30, 2018, followed by a countdown dress rehearsal on May 1. The next day, meteorologists with the U.S. Air Force’s 30th Space Wing predicted a 20 percent chance of favorable weather for a Saturday liftoff with an 80 percent chance that launch visibility conditions will not be acceptable.
The InSight lander is NASA’s first mission designed to study the deep interior of Mars to learn about how all rocky planets, including Earth and its Moon formed. The probe’s science instruments include a seismometer, a heat probe that is designed to burrow nearly 16 feet (five meters) into the Martian surface, and a radio science experiment that could determine just how much Mars’ North Pole wobbles as it orbits the Sun.
The lander will use its robotic arm to carefully place its science instruments on the surface of Mars. InSight’s mission is expected to last a little over one Mars year (about two Earth years).
Also launching on the same rocket as InSight is a NASA technology experiment know as Mars Cube One (MarCO). Consisting of two mini-spacecraft roughly the size of briefcases, these MarCO satellites will be the first test of CubeSat technology in deep space. They are designed to test communications and navigation technologies for future missions and may assist InSight communications as it nears Mars.
InSight’s launch period runs from May 5 through June 8 with a two-hour launch window on each day.
Additionally, InSight is to be the first interplanetary mission launched from the West Coast. In clear skies, the flight should be visible up and down a wide swath of the California coast.
“If you live in Southern California and the weather is right, you’ll probably have a better view of the launch than I will,” said Tom Hoffman, project manager for NASA’s InSight mission from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. “I’ll be stuck inside a control room looking at monitors—which is not the best way to enjoy an Atlas 5 on its way to Mars.”
Missions to other planets usually launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, flying east over water. The eastward flight adds the momentum of the Earth’s rotation to the thrust of the rocket. The Atlas V 401, however, is powerful enough, and the spacecraft light enough, that it really didn’t matter which coast mission managers chose. The primary deciding factor was that Vandenberg is more available at this time to accommodate InSight’s six-week launch window.
The two-stage Atlas V 401 produces 860,200 pounds (3.8 million newtons) of thrust at liftoff. Should everything go according to plan, the rocket should ascend vertically for the first 17 seconds of powered flight before beginning a pitch and yaw maneuver to put it on a trajectory towards Earth’s South Pole.
“After liftoff 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 for the Launch Services Program at the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “If you live on the California Central Coast or south to L.A. and San Diego, be sure to get up early on May 5, because Atlas V is the gold standard in launch vehicles and it can put on a great show.”
The Atlas V should reach a speed of Mach One at 1 minute, 18 seconds into its powered flight. At this point, the launch vehicle is expected to be approximately 30,000 feet (9 kilometers) in altitude and one mile (1.75 kilometers) down range. The vehicle’s first-stage engine should shut down 2 minutes, 30 seconds later at an altitude of approximately 66 miles (106 kilometers) and 184 miles (296 kilometers) downrange.
Six seconds later, the Centaur upper stage, carrying InSight in a 40-foot long payload fairing, will separate from the first stage.
The Centaur’s RL10 engine is expected to start 10 seconds later with 22,890 pounds (101,820 newtons) of thrust, which should carry the second stage and InSight into a 115-mile (185-kilometer) parking orbit 13 minutes, 16 seconds after launch.
The parking orbit is expected to last between 59 to 66 minutes, depending on the date of the launch. Then the Centaur will re-ignite for a final burn at a mission elapsed time of 1 hour, 19 minutes to place InSight into a Mars-bound interplanetary trajectory.
If the launch takes on the first opportunity on May 5, the spacecraft should separate from the Centaur about 93 minutes after liftoff as the spacecraft is approximately over the Alaska-Yukon region.
Not long after that, the twin MarCO spacecraft should separate from the Atlas V’s Centaur stage and deploy their antennas and solar panels. The MarCOs are designed to navigate to Mars independently of InSight and make their own course corrections.
The cruise phase begins shortly after InSight separates from the Centaur stage and ends when the spacecraft is about 60 days from entering the Martian atmosphere. The trip to Mars should take about 6.5 months. If all goes according to plan, InSight should reach Mars on Nov. 26, 2018, no matter when in the mission launches during the six-week window.
Video courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech
Jim Sharkey is a lab assistant, writer and general science enthusiast who grew up in Enid, Oklahoma, the hometown of Skylab and Shuttle astronaut Owen K. Garriott. As a young Star Trek fan he participated in the letter-writing campaign which resulted in the space shuttle prototype being named Enterprise. While his academic studies have ranged from psychology and archaeology to biology, he has never lost his passion for space exploration. Jim began blogging about science, science fiction and futurism in 2004. Jim resides in the San Francisco Bay area and has attended NASA Socials for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover landing and the NASA LADEE lunar orbiter launch.