This Saturday, the next JPL mission to Mars is scheduled to launch, and I just might be there to see it. The Mars InSight Mission will open it’s launch window, and all signs are pointing to the candle lighting as planned at 4:05am PT (6:05am CT for you Midwesterners) from Vandenberg Air Force Base just North of Santa Barbara, CA. The current plan for is to make the run up Friday night, crash at a local hotel, wake up at 0-dark-30, drink coffee, launch, breakfast, home, then celebrate Cinco de Mayo.
Depending on how the launch goes, InSight is expected to land in late November 2018 on Elysium Planitia on Mars to study the ‘Inner Space’ of Mars. It is essentially a lander that will measure the make-up of the red planet. One science goal is to understand how Mars formed by doing geological testing. The other main goal is to determine the tectonic activity — namely measure for “MarsQuakes” (Because you can’t have Earthquakes somewhere other than Earth). This mission also includes two CubeSats (miniture satellites that can fit in the palm of your hand. Names Mars Cube One, these two units will test deep space communication that could lead to a a better way to push data through our solar system.
While not considered a flagship mission, it still has a lot of great things going for it.
For starters – it’s my first JPL launch. Like, not just seeing it, but the first of the JPL missions that launched while I was paying attention as a JPLer, so there’s that.
This mission also has my name on it … figuratively and literally. InSight’s body includes a microchip that, for those us in the know, allowed us to have our name carved into that chip. I did the same with my nephew, so the two of us will have a man-made object on Mars with our names on it. Goofy stuff aside, I did have a part of the process. While my involvement in InSight is an infinitesimal percentage of the overall project, I’ve played some roles in it’s build – most notably buying off the electrostatic discharge safety of the final assembly area (meaning, I stuck something into an outlet, and the light turned green).
InSight will also find a place in history in American Space flight. Before this weekend, Kennedy Space Center was the only launch facility where extraorbital flights were launched. InSight, flying out of Vandenberg, will be the first interplanetary mission launched in this country outside of Florida.
The launch window is precise. If the bird doesn’t fly at 4:05am Saturday, they’ll try again Sunday … same bat time, same bat channel; then lather rinse, repeat until the candle is lit or June 8 when the window closes. Flying on a United Launch Alliance Atlas rocket, it should make for a pretty good light show coming out of Vandy; but the view won’t be so good after that with the sun to our back. That’s why we were pretty excited to head up to see it.