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The Journal Gazette

  • Associated Press A United Launch Alliance Atlas-V rocket with NASA's InSight spacecraft onboard awaits Saturday's launch from California on Friday.

Sunday, May 06, 2018 1:00 am

Robotic geologist begins 6-month flight to Mars

Associated Press

Also: Robonaut returns from space station

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – An experimental humanoid known as Robonaut is back on Earth.

SpaceX tweeted that its Dragon capsule carrying Robonaut and other items from the International Space Station made a good splashdown in the Pacific on Saturday afternoon. The capsule splashed down off the California coast.

In orbit for seven years, Robonaut needs a tuneup because of circuitry problems. NASA officials say Robonaut may launch again, once fixed.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – A robotic geologist armed with a hammer and quake monitor rocketed toward Mars on Saturday, aiming to land on the red planet and explore its mysterious insides.

In a twist, NASA launched the Mars InSight lander from California rather than Florida's Cape Canaveral. It was the first interplanetary mission ever to depart from the West Coast, drawing pre-dawn crowds to fog-socked Vandenberg Air Force Base and rocket watchers down the California coast into Baja.

“This is a big day. We're going back to Mars!” NASA's new boss, Jim Bridenstine, said following liftoff. “This is an extraordinary mission with a whole host of firsts.”

The spacecraft will take more than six months to get to Mars and start its geologic excavations, traveling 300 million miles to get there.

InSight will dig deeper into Mars than ever before – nearly 16 feet, or 5 meters – to take the planet's temperature. It will also attempt to make the first measurements of marsquakes, using a high-tech seismometer placed directly on the Martian surface.

“That's the real payoff of this whole mission and that's still lying ahead of us,” said the mission's chief scientist, Bruce Banerdt of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Although fog prevented Banerdt from seeing the liftoff of the $1 billion U.S.-European mission, he heard the roar of the rocket and all the blaring car alarms it set off.

“It was just an incredible moment,” Banerdt told The Associated Press by phone. Despite the challenges still ahead, “I think I can bask in a little bit of satisfaction and just feeling like we really accomplished something today.”

Besides InSight, the United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rocket gave a lift to a pair of mini test satellites, or CubeSats, that are trailing InSight to Mars to serve as a potential communication link.

NASA hasn't put a spacecraft down on Mars since the Curiosity rover in 2012. The U.S., in fact, is the only country to successfully land and operate a spacecraft at Mars. It's tough, complicated stuff. Only about 40 percent of all missions to Mars from all countries – orbiters and landers alike – have proven successful over the decades.

If all goes well, the three-legged InSight will descend by parachute and engine firings onto a flat equatorial region of Mars – believed to be free of big, potentially dangerous rocks – on Nov. 26. Once down, it will stay put, using a mechanical arm to place the science instruments on the surface.

Banerdt said Mars is ideal for learning how the rocky planets of our solar system formed 4.5 billion years ago. Unlike Earth, Mars hasn't been transformed by plate tectonics and other processes, he said. InSight might also help explain why some planets – like ours – went on to develop life, while others did not.

Over the course of two Earth years – or one Martian year – NASA expects InSight's three main experiments to provide a true 3-D image of the interior of Mars. Scientists know Mars has an iron core and a crust, but beyond that, the inside is “basically, completely unknown,” Banerdt said.

The lander is equipped with a seismometer for measuring marsquakes, a self-hammering probe for burrowing beneath the surface, and a radio system for tracking the spacecraft's position and planet's wobbly rotation, thereby revealing the size and composition of Mars' core.

“InSight, for seismologists, will really be a piece of history, a new page of history,” said the Paris Institute of Earth Physics' Philippe Lognonne, lead scientist of the InSight seismometer.