Spaceflight Insider

GALLERY: NASA’s InSight lander heads to Mars atop ULA Atlas V

The Atlas V 401 rocket begins its ascent into space to send NASA's InSight lander to Mars. Photo Credit: Bill Ingalls / NASA

The Atlas V 401 rocket begins its ascent into space to send NASA’s InSight lander to Mars. Photo Credit: Bill Ingalls / NASA

LOMPOC, Calif. — InSight is on its way to Mars! Using a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, it was the first interplanetary mission to leave Earth from the West Coast of the United States. Flying through a layer of fog, the mission got underway at 4:05 a.m. PDT (7:05 a.m. EDT / 11:05 GMT) May 5, 2018.InSight, which is short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, is NASA’s latest Mars lander. As its name implies, it is designed to study the deep interior of the Red Planet using several instruments, including a seismometer, a heat probe and a magnetometer. 

InSight's trajectory to Mars. Image Credit: NASA

InSight’s trajectory to Mars. Image Credit: NASA

The 191-foot (58-meter) Atlas V used for the launch was in its basic 401 configuration, meaning it sported 13-foot (four-meter) payload fairing, no supplemental solid rocket boosters and a single-engine Centaur upper stage. However, this was more than enough oomph to send the small Mars lander, and the two tag-along Mars Cube One (MarCO) technology demonstrator CubeSats, on its way to the Red Planet, despite launching south rather than east with Earth’s rotation.

NASA and ULA chose Vandenberg Air Force Base’s Space Launch Complex 3 along California’s Central Coast not because of preferred orbital dynamics, but because of range availability. With the facilities at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida supporting launches as many as several times a month, the U.S. Space Agency wanted to give InSight, which had between May 5 and June 8, 2018, to get off the ground, the widest availability in case it was needed.

Indeed, weather the morning of May 5 could have posed a problem. With Range visibility a concern, the 30th Space Wing at Vandenberg predicted a 20 percent chance of weather favorable conditions. However, officials said that percentage was only if other ground telemetry systems that could track the vehicle were not available.

Everything did operate as planned and the Range waived the fog concern during the countdown, decreasing the probability of weather violation to zero.

At the end of the countdown, the Atlas V’s single Russian-made RD-180 engine roared to life and began lifting the rocket with its Mars-bound payload toward space. Four minutes later, the first stage finished consuming its rocket grade kerosene and liquid oxygen fuels and cut off. Seconds later, it fell away from the Centaur upper stage, which then ignited its single RL10C-1 engine to continue the climb to orbit.

Consuming liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, the Centaur continued flying toward orbit for another nine minutes. During its ascent, about 4 minutes, 28 seconds after leaving Earth, the payload fairing protecting InSight from the thick parts of the atmosphere, fell away as it was no longer needed.

Some 13 minutes, 16 seconds after leaving California, the first burn of Centaur concluded, placing the spacecraft in a low-Earth parking orbit. There it waited for just over an hour before burning for a second time (this time lasting only five minutes) to place it and the spacecraft on a trans-Mars trajectory.

About nine minutes after engine cutoff, the Mars lander separated. This was followed seconds later by the twin MarCO CubeSats located at the base of the Centaur rocket. InSight’s next milestone is expected to be the first trajectory correction maneuver, which is slated for about 10 days after launch. The spacecraft is scheduled to arrive at the Red Planet on Nov. 26, 2018.

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The following photos were taken by the Jim Sharkey and Matthew Kuhns of SpaceFlight Insider’s visual team.

Video courtesy of SpaceFlight Insider

Video courtesy of NASA JPL



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