Officials with NASA and Pasadena-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory said Thursday they are planning two firsts for American space exploration — the first mission to study the center of Mars, coupled with the first interplanetary launch from the West Coast.
InSight — short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport — is a stationary lander scheduled to launch as early as May 5 from Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc.
“Depending on where you are in Southern California you’ll be able to see the space craft at various points along its ascent as it heads off on its way to Mars,” Tom Hoffman, a project manager with NASA, said at a news conference at JPL. “This should be spectacular because it will be early morning hours so it should light up the sky and be very visible throughout all of Southern California and into Mexico.”
JPL, a division of Caltech, will manage the InSight Project for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C.
On Wednesday, InSight completed what’s known as a spin test, during which the entire spacecraft is rotated at high speeds to confirm its center of gravity. It is on schedule for its launch on or around May 5, according to NASA.
The mission is the first ever dedicated to Mars’ deep interior, and it will be the first NASA mission since the Apollo moon landings to place a seismometer on the soil of another celestial body.
“In essence it will take the vital signs of Mars — pulse, temperature and much more. We like to say that it is the first thorough checkup since the planet formed 4.5 billion years ago,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate.
The spacecraft will launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 401 rocket lifting off from Space Launch Complex-3 at Vandenberg.
“For a variety of reasons it was actually easier to find a launch spot that we need for our planetary window from the West Coast, and so that was the primary reason that we chose the West Coast,” Hoffman said.
He added that another reason was “to break the (East Coast) monopoly on planetary launches. As a California person that is part of my motivation”