The Curiosity rover is still trundling around the red planet, and NASA’s next ambitious rover mission remains a few years away. However, the space agency has a non-wheeled Mars mission launching this very week, weather permitting. The InSight lander will delve deep into the interior of Mars, searching for clues to its past, present, and future.
NASA plans to launch InSight aboard an Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex-3 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. InSight will share space with a mission called Mars Cube One, which aims to test CubeSat navigation and communication technology in deep space. InSight and the cubesats are destined for Mars, and that’s a first for NASA. No, it’s obviously not the first mission to Mars, but it’ll be the first interplanetary launch from the US west coast.
The launch is scheduled for 7:05 AM Eastern Time on May 5th. After InSight lifts off, we won’t hear much from it until it reaches Mars in November of this year. InSight is based on the design of the 2008 Phoenix lander, so it will land propulsively near the equator in a region called Elysium Planitia. It’s solar powered, so that location will allow a longer lifespan of about two years. It’s also a relatively flat region with few rocks to disrupt the landing.
Most missions to Mars focus on the surface and atmosphere, but InSight will be the first to look inside the planet. The lander’s primary instrument is known as the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS). After landing on the planet, InSight will use a robot arm to place the SEIS package directly on the surface, where it will take the first seismic readings of Mars. With that data, scientists will be able to build a 3D map of Mars’ interior. SEIS will also monitor for marsquakes (earthquakes, but on Mars). InSight also has a “Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package,” which is basically a fancy thermometer that hammers itself up to 5 meters into the surface. This instrument should help us reconstruct the thermal history of Mars.
InSight is part of the Discovery program, which aims to conduct focused, lower-cost missions with input from the public. NASA will have a pre-launch briefing with all the latest news on InSight on Thursday at 4 PM Eastern Time. You’ll be able to catch the briefing and launch on NASA’s live feed page.