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InSight Mars mission on deck as NASA makes final preparations for historic California launch

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An artist's rendering of a rocket launching with the InSight spacecraft (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

An artist's rendering of a rocket launching with the InSight spacecraft (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA is making the final preparations for the historic launch of its InSight Mars lander early Saturday.

InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) will be the first spacecraft to launch to another planet from the West Coast when it blasts off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Central California. The two-hour launch window at Vandenberg’s Space Launch Complex-3 starts at 7:05 a.m. EDT.

"For those Southern Californians who are interested in rockets or space exploration, or have insomnia, we hope to put on a great show this Saturday," said Tom Hoffman, InSight project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is managing the mission.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V 401 rocket is scheduled to carry the spacecraft over the Channel Islands just off the California coast and continue climbing out over the Pacific, shadowing the coastline south beyond Baja California, according to NASA. The Atlas V will reach orbit about 13 minutes after launch, when the rocket is about 1,200 miles northwest of Isabella Island, Ecuador.

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The unmanned InSight spacecraft and lander, which are built by Lockheed Martin, will take about 6 months to reach Mars. The lander is expected to touch down on the Red Planet’s surface just after Thanksgiving, on Nov. 26, 2018.

On May 5, we’ll do something that we’ve never done before…launch a spacecraft to another planet from the West Coast! Join us as we countdown to T-Zero for the launch of @NASAInSight, which will travel to Mars to study the planet’s deep interior. Watch: https://t.co/HFZzYVqJUy pic.twitter.com/zjDrs6GETi

— NASA (@NASA) May 3, 2018

NASA teams have conducted a successful Launch Readiness Review, the agency’s Launch Services Program tweeted Friday. “There are no technical issues being worked at this time. Teams are proceeding for liftoff on May 5, at 4:05 a.m. PDT/7:05 a.m. EDT.”

[email protected] mission & launch teams concluded a successful Launch Readiness Review. There are no technical issues being worked at this time. Teams are proceeding for liftoff on May 5, at 4:05 a.m. PDT/7:05 a.m. EDT on a @ulalaunch #AtlasV rocket ???? More: https://t.co/mQPiXe0B2T pic.twitter.com/0qEBWHSSu4

— NASA_LSP (@NASA_LSP) May 4, 2018

If NASA is unable to launch InSight on Saturday, the agency has over a month to make another attempt. The InSight launch period extends to June 8, 2018, with multiple launch opportunities over windows of approximately two hours. “Launch opportunities are set five minutes apart during each date's window,” it said.

Even if the launch date changes, the lander is still scheduled to arrive at Mars on Nov. 26.

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During a pre-launch briefing with journalists Thursday, Scott Messer, ULA’s program manager for NASA missions, explained that interplanetary missions usually launch from the East Coast to get an extra boost from the Earth’s rotation. The Atlas V rocket, however, has the capability to deliver the InSight mission from California, he said, noting that it also gives ULA the opportunity to move off America’s “more congested” Eastern launch range.

ULA’s Scott Messer: interplanetary missions usually launch from the East Coast to get an extra boost from the Earth’s rotation. ULA’s #AtlasV has the performance to overcome that. (Don’t miss the full/scale) @NASAInSight model pic.twitter.com/94acrmjvhs

— ULA (@ulalaunch) May 3, 2018

ULA’s Scott Messer: We’re launching from the West Coast because the #AtlasV 401 has the capability to deliver the mission from here and it allowed us to move off a more congested Eastern Range. @NASAInSight

— ULA (@ulalaunch) May 3, 2018

The mission will provide scientists with a wealth of data.

“InSight will be the first mission to peer deep beneath the Martian surface, studying the planet's interior by measuring its heat output and listening for marsquakes, which are seismic events similar to earthquakes on Earth,” explained NASA, in a statement. “It will use the seismic waves generated by marsquakes to develop a map of the planet’s deep interior. The resulting insight into Mars’ formation will help us better understand how other rocky planets, including Earth, were and are created.”

InSight had originally been scheduled to blast off in March 2016, although NASA suspended its launch preparations when a vacuum leak was found in the craft’s prime science instrument.

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NASAInSight

llustration of NASA's Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) (NASA)

NASA’s long-term goal is to send a manned mission to Mars in the 2030s. However, former astronaut Buzz Aldrin thinks that a slightly later target date of 2040 is more realistic. In an interview in 2016, the Gemini 12 and Apollo 11 astronaut told Fox News that by 2040, astronauts could have visited Mars’ moon Phobos, which could serve as a sort of stepping stone to the Red Planet.

Other NASA missions to Mars are also planned, although the heat shield for the agency’s 2020 Mars Rover recently cracked during tests. Officials say that the incident won’t affect the mission’s 2020 launch date, according to Space.com. The six-wheeled robot is expected to arrive on Mars in 2021.

Earlier this year, NASA announced a project to build robotic bees capable of flying on Mars.

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NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter recently celebrated 12 years at the Red Planet.

Private space company SpaceX is also working to reach Mars. Speaking at the South by Southwest festival earlier this year, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said that he expects to see test flights of the firm’s Mars spacecraft next year.

SpaceX plans to use its upcoming BFR rocket system for unmanned cargo missions to Mars by 2022. “The objectives for the first mission will be to confirm water resources and identify hazards along with putting in place initial power, mining, and life support infrastructure,” explains SpaceX, on its website.

A second mission, carrying cargo and crew, is targeted for 2024, with the primary objectives of building a propellant depot and preparing for future crew flights, according to SpaceX. The ships from the initial missions will be used to build a Mars base, it said.

Fox News’ Chris Ciaccia contributed to the article. 

Follow James Rogers on Twitter @jamesjrogers

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