About 385 million kilometers to go in just over six months to try to break through Mars the mystery of the formation of terrestrial planets: this is the mission of the InSight probe whose launch is scheduled for Saturday morning in California.
The craft called Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) is to be propelled into space by an Atlas V rocket at 11:05 GMT from the Vandenberg base of the US Air Force. The launch window is two hours and, in case of postponement, NASA has a window of the same duration each day until June 8.
Kristina Williams, in charge of the weather for the launch, said Thursday that the expected fog Saturday morning should not be a problem. NASA officials said Friday that the visibility requirements could be ignored for the occasion.
“There is nothing routine going on Mars, especially landing on Mars,” said Stu Spath, InSight Program Manager at Lockheed Martin Space, which has built the rocket as a joint venture with Boeing. “Saturday morning, anticipation and excitement will be at their peak”.
The launch was originally scheduled for 2016, but leaks on one instrument had resulted in a postponement to 2018. The windows of launch favorable for the red planet appear only every two years.
If all goes as planned this time, the spacecraft should arrive at its destination on November 26th, becoming the first NASA spacecraft to land on Mars since the landing of Curiosity in 2012.
Its mission will be to detect the Martian earthquakes that, according to the description of NASA, are “like a flash that illuminates the internal structure of the planet”.
InSight needs to collect data through three instruments: a seismometer, a device to accurately locate the probe while Mars oscillates on its axis of rotation and a heat flux sensor that can dig three to five meters in the Martian subsoil, fifteen times more than in previous missions.
As Earth and Mars probably formed in a similar way 4.5 billion years ago, NASA hopes to shed light on why they are so different.
Mars, the fourth planet from the Sun that is smaller and less geologically active than the blue planet, could harbor some clues in the matter.
For, on Earth, the process of moving from “a ball of rocks without characteristic reliefs to a planet” that can support life has been masked by billions of years of earthquakes and movements of molten rocks in the mantle, explained Bruce Banerdt, InSight’s chief scientist at NASA’s JPL laboratory in Pasadena, California.
Scientists expect to record up to a hundred “Mars tremors” during the mission which will last about two Earth years. Most should be below 6.0 on the Richter Scale.
Jim Green, director of planetary science at NASA, noted that experts already know that Mars is experiencing earthquakes, avalanches and meteorite falls.
“But how earthquake-prone Mars is – it’s the basic information that we need as humans exploring Mars,” he said.
Besides understanding the formation and evolution of telluric planets, the goal is also to determine the current tectonic activity on Mars and its impact rate by meteorites.
According to NASA, the total cost of the mission is $993 million.
In addition, a pair of suitcase-sized satellites named Mars Cube One (MarCO) will be onboard, and will be used to assess the communication capabilities of small equipment in deep space.
They must follow their own run to Mars in the wake of InSight, on which they could transmit data during its entry into the Martian atmosphere and its landing.