A rocket bound for Mars blasted off early Saturday, marking NASA’s first journey to the red planet in six years, in a mission that is expected to last nearly six months.
United Launch Alliance launched NASA’s InSight lander from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. ULA – the rocket-building joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin – used an Atlas V rocket to lift the spacecraft off the Earth’s surface and send it on its way to the red planet.
The InSight lander (an acronym, meaning “Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport”) is on a two-year mission to drill into the surface of Mars to study the planet’s crust.
All three parts of the Insight spacecraft – cruise stage, heat-absorbing shell and lander – were built by Lockheed. Once InSight reaches Mars, the it will disconnect from the cruise stage and begin entering the atmosphere.
InSight’s heat-absorbing shell will the take the brunt of the intense entry, until it reaches the lower atmosphere and disconnects.
Then InSight’s lander will use a parachute to continue to decelerate, before firing its on-board descent engines for a vertical landing.
The craft intends to touch down on the Martian surface at only a few miles per hour.
Once on the surface, InSight will begin deploying its primary instruments. These include a seismometer to measure movement within the Martian crust, a probe reaching about 16 feet down to measure heat and environmental sensors to collect more data about the Mars atmosphere.
InSight is scheduled to travel through space for the next six months, reaching Mars in November.