Tomorrow, NASA's next robotic explorer is beginning its deep space voyage to Mars. The InSight launcher will take off from Vandenberg Air Base in California in the early hours of Saturday morning, the start of a six and a half month journey to the Red Planet. Once there, the small spacecraft will listen to earthquakes to discover what Mars is made of.
NASA has a long history of launching Mars, but this trip to the Red Planet is a bit different: it is the first interplanetary mission to take off from the west coast. All of NASA's previous deep space spacecraft have launched from Florida, where rockets fly east over the Atlantic and gain an additional boost from the speed of Earth's rotation. However, InSight is quite small; The Atlas V in which he travels is powerful enough to fly south over the Pacific and still get the spaceship where he needs to go.
While getting InSight in space is the main point of the mission, there are also two smaller spaceships for this ride. Two satellites, each the size of a cereal box, are attached to the top of the Atlas V rocket. They are CubeSats: standardized small satellites that many researchers and companies modify to collect data in space. Most CubeSats only reach low Earth orbit, but InSight CubeSats are the first to enter deep space.
Once the rocket deploys InSight, the MarCO-A and MarCO-B satellites are also separated. and follow the lander to Mars. The twin spacecraft will serve as a small communications relay network for InSight when it lands on Mars in November. The MarCO satellites will attempt to send information about the landing to NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which is circulating on the red planet at this time. And then the orbiter will send that information to Earth.
Satellites are not crucial to the InSight mission. NASA just wants to see if these tiny probes can collect and send data so far from Earth. "It's a demonstration of these CubeSat technologies that have never before seen deep space," explains Joel Steinkraus, MarCO's chief mechanical engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory The Verge . "We do not have a good understanding of how they would work."
The launch of InSight is too early for anyone in the US UU The Atlas V is scheduled to take off at 7:05 a.m. ET, or at 4:05 a.m., for those who see the launch from the west coast. And there is a concern that the weather does not cooperate: until now, there is a 20 percent chance that the weather is good to take off, and fog is Vandenberg's main concern. The fog could also be a problem on Sunday, the next backup date. The 30th Space Wing, which oversees Vandenberg's missions, says it's possible for ULA to launch through the fog, but the rocket itself will be hard to see.
If the release is discarded, there is still a long time to get InSight off Earth. NASA has the option to launch 35 times from May 5 to June 8. Therefore, it is likely that ULA will find a good time to bring InSight to space. Live coverage of the NASA mission will begin at 6:30 a.m. ET on Saturday, so check the updates at that time.