Get ready for blast off. For the first time, a NASA mission to another planet is launching from California. The Insight Mars lander is scheduled to take off Saturday from the Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc, California.
Usually missions like this are based in Florida, but that creates a sort of traffic jam.
"We can come to the west coast which is relatively less congested and relieve some of the pressure over there on the east," said Bruce Banerdt, principal investigator for the InSight mission. "Plus it's cool to be able to show off a launch to about 10 million people in Southern California for the first time," he said.
What will InSight do?
InSight is going to study the interior of Mars. Scientists know a lot about Mars already from previous missions, but this is the first time they'll get this data about the inside of the planet, Banerdt said.
The lander will carry a seismometer and a heat probe to measure seismic waves from Mars quakes and read temperatures below the planet's surface.
When we live here in California, we feel earthquakes maybe two or three times a year, but at CalTech they have seismometers and they're measuring dozens of earthquakes everyday. We don't feel them, but they're happening in Japan, they're happening in South America. By the time those waves get to California, we can't feel them, but they make little vibrations in the ground that those seismometers measure and we're doing the same thing on Mars.
Studying these tiny seismic waves and the subtle differences in temperature as you move deeper and deeper into the planet will help the team learn about the makeup of Mars' interior.
"It’s like going to the doctor’s office. We’re going to take its temperature. We’re going to listen to its heartbeat," Banerdt said.
What will this teach us about Earth?
Learning about the inside of Mars will tell scientists more about the planet's early history so they can try to figure out how Mars and other rocky planets, like Earth and Venus, formed, Banerdt said.
We don't know a lot about the earliest history of the planet Earth, and so we don't understand how it took its path to where we are today, where it's a cool place to live and summer vacation is great versus Venus which is about the same size as the Earth but is about 300-400 degrees hotter and maybe not such a great summer vacation place. How those planets diverged is one of the great questions of planetary science.
Mars is the best source of information about the beginnings of rocky planets because it's big enough to have undergone the same planet-forming processes that Earth did, but it's less active inside, Banerdt said. Earth has a lot going on, and under its surface, plate tectonics and movement under the planet's crust have erased any evidence of what Earth was like in its earliest days, but that's not true on Mars.
"We think that by going to Mars we'll be able to get the clues to the early formation processes that have been lost on the Earth but are locked in this deep interior vault on Mars," Banerdt said.
What happens after launch?
Once the mission launches, it will take about six and a half months to reach the red planet.
The actual landing process is pretty complicated, Banerdt said. When arriving on Mars, everything InSight needs for its trip from Earth to Mars will be jettisoned. Then it's time to approach the atmosphere; InSight has a heat shield that will actually burn off as it hits Mars' atmosphere. Once speeds decrease a bit, the lander pops a parachute to slow it down more. As it approaches the surface, the parachute is dropped and rocket engines take over to help the lander reach the surface safely.
"And then the fun starts! Once we're on Mars, we have to unfold our solar panels, we have to get our instruments on the surface. There's a whole choreography that goes on once we get on the surface," Banerdt said.
The InSight mission will last for about two years, but if they receive more funding from NASA, they could continue after that.