Photo: AP

NASA’s robotic lander InSight officially started its journey to Mars following a successful predawn launch aboard an Atlas V rocket Saturday morning. The launch took place at 4:05am local time from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

InSight—short for Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport—will spend the next six months covering more than 300 million miles as it makes its way to the Red Planet. It is expected to reach the surface on November 26th.

Advertisement

Advertisement

If everything goes according to plan, InSight will begin a slow descent to the planet’s surface with the help of a heat shield, parachutes, and its rocket engine. It will aim to land in a flat plain believed to be free of any dangerous rocks and other obstacles that would obstruct the lander. The targeted landing spot is located to the north of the Mars equator Elysium Planitia.

Once the three-legged lander has touched down on Mars, it will probe 16 feet beneath the ground to taking measurements of Mars. InSight will determine the temperature of the planet and measure seismic activity with a seismometer, which will provide a sort of sonogram of the interior structure of the planet.

“This mission will probe the interior of another terrestrial planet, giving us an idea of the size of the core, the mantle, the crust and our ability then to compare that with the Earth,” NASA’s chief scientist Jim Green said, according to USA Today. “This is of fundamental importance to understand the origin of our solar system and how it became the way it is today.”

Advertisement

Advertisement

The tests could also show signs of underground water reserves, which would indicate a possibility that life could exist on Mars.

Bruce Banerdt, the principal investigator for the InSight mission, said during a pre-launch briefing that the potential for scientific discovery is the primary reason for the trip.

“The science that we want to do with this mission... is really the science of understanding the early solar system,” Banerdt said, according to the New York Times. “How planets form, how rocky planets form.”

Advertisement

While the mission—which is the first inter-planetary voyage to launch from California—is off to a good start, there is no guarantee of success. NASA cautioned that Mars trips have only a 40 percent success rate. USA Today reported nearly $1 billion has been invested into InSight, including $813 million from US taxpayers and $180 million from France and Germany.

[USA Today, New York Times]