NASA Returns to Mars with New InSight Lander

Orbital ATK employees wearing protective clothing

It's Nasa's new Mars lander, the first to touch down on the red planet since the Phoenix back in 2008.

"The seismometer is so sensitive it can detect vibrations as small as a hydrogen atom", Barrett said. It also will study how meteorites have impacted the planet. They won't stop at Mars, just fly past.

Regardless of when the rocket actually launches, InSight is scheduled to land on Mars on November 26.

JPL will manage the InSight Project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C.

The InSight lander will study the Red Planet's interior using a "self-hammering" probe that will dig deeper than ever before.

Landing on Mars with a spacecraft that's not much bigger than a couple of office desks is "a hugely hard task, and every time we do it, we're on pins and needles", Banerdt said. Even the minuscule uplift of the ground caused by the gravitational pull of Mars's moon, Phobos, should register on its instruments.

Technicians inspect the InSight lander's solar arrays before launch. Overall, 21 spacecraft have been sent to Mars, with two rovers now exploring craters and six satellites operating overhead.

This particular launch is a special one, since it would mark the first time a mission to Mars has flown from Vandenberg. NASA analysts are expecting to analyze around 100 earthquakes during the entire mission.

The launch pattern from the West Coast requires the rocket to burn a bit more fuel to deliver the craft on its proper trajectory.

The launch of the mission, which will study the interior of Mars and detect "Marsquakes", is now set for 4:05 a.m. PT from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Southern California.

The 358kg lander features a robot arm measuring 2.4 metres, which scientists will use to position instruments on the surface, and solar panels able to generate 600 - 700 watts. While it seems a relatively minor task for a mission that will span the vast distance between the Earth and Mars, it represents an important example of the utility of cubesats in deep space. "The further out you go, it gets harder and harder to send a big spacecraft".

As space exploration and satellite communications companies increasingly experiment with miniature craft, ULA is expanding its ability to accommodate a variety of payload configurations. NASA is set to launch two small satellites named after the beloved characters from the late-2000s Pixar film this weekend.

The goal of the ambitious undertaking is to excavate deep into the jagged surface of Mars and stay what makes the planet tick underground. "We can actually watch the north pole wobble over the course of the year", Banerdt said.

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