If the low rumble from the Atlas V rocket didn't rock residents of the Lompoc Valley awake early Saturday morning, the cheers and applause from the thousands of people who flocked there to witness the historic launch of NASA's InSight spacecraft surely did.
The rocket's 4:05 a.m. liftoff from Vandenberg Air Force Base Space Launch Complex 3 treated the crowds gathered at viewing parties at the Lompoc Airport and St. Mary's Episcopal Church, as well as the thousands of predawn stargazers across Southern California, to spectacular sound if not visibility.
The first interplanetary mission to originate from the West Coast, the Atlas V rocket carrying InSight — short for the Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport — was visible to viewers south of Lompoc as a small, red or white dot trailing across the sky. Poor visibility in the area surrounding the launch, largely the result of thick overcast and lingering fog, gave little chance of viewing the event.
Though it may have put a damper on early morning viewing parties, Saturday's heavy fog had no effect on the launch window. Roughly 30 minutes before launch, 1st Lt. Kristina Williams, weather officer for VAFB’s 30th Space Wing, issued a green weather report advising a zero percent chance of weather violation.
"It’s a common event, especially at this time of year," Williams said of the fog during a press briefing last week, "and ULA and NASA are both aware of it and they are prepared to launch through it."
NASA reported a successful separation of InSight and Mars Cubesat One (MarCO) — a pair of suitcase-sized twin satellites — from the second-stage rocket approximately 90 minutes after launch. Engineers confirmed receiving their first signal from the lander at 6:13 a.m. With the craft and satellites free from Earth's orbit, they will now begin their six-month, 300-million mile journey to the red planet.
InSight is expected to touch down on Mars on Nov. 26 following a 7-minute entry, descent and landing phase. Though it will take a separate trajectory, MarCO will be orbiting Mars at the time of the descent to provide a communications link to Earth during the craft's critical atmospheric entry period. The CubeSat will give ground crews information at a more rapid rate than the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is able to relay.
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The lander will enter Mars' atmosphere around 12,000 mph before slowing to a speed of 5 mph at the end of its descent. InSight's heat shield and parachute will help slow the craft, which will use radar to determine its speed and distance from the ground.
"We've done a lot of testing and analysis to make sure we've done everything we possibly can to land safely," InSight project manager Tom Hoffman said prior to the launch. "I believe we're going to do that."
Billed as a doctor's "checkup" for the 4.6 billion-year-old planet, the robotic lander will evaluate the geophysics of Mars in hopes of better understanding how terrestrial planets form, including Earth. Armed with an array of high-tech tools — a seismograph, burrowing heat probe and dual antenna — InSight will observe and report the seismology, heat flow and radio transmissivity of the red planet.
Understanding the planet's interior could help scientists understand planetary evolution, how some planets were formed and, most importantly, how they came to sustain life.
"What we have right now [about Mars] in many textbooks comes from models," Jim Green, NASA's chief scientist, said Friday evening. "We're going to put the real data in there and understand how Mars was formed. It's a huge step for us to determine the beginning part of our solar system's evolution."
InSight will operate for 720 days before ending its primary mission in November 2020.